The flames that consumed hope

I’m frequently asked to write security assessments of Baghdad, to gauge what the risks are and what the associated political fallout could be. Only 10 days ago I was asked for my thoughts on Baghdad security: would a Daesh bombing campaign continue after Fallujah was liberated (yes because Daesh has always used them to project strength), how likely would an attack occur around Eid (very likely as Daesh targets crowded areas and especially increases attacks in Ramadhan), can they penetrate inner Baghdad areas such as Karrada (yes because these bombings are planned and have assistance to get them through checkpoints), and would there be a breakout of violence in response to such an attack (unlikely as there is a war being fought but popular anger would certainly be high). I move freely around Baghdad and the provinces, but I have always minimised my time in crowded areas because they have been so frequently targeted over the years. Relatives, friends or someone I know have been killed or injured in every year since 2003, and I expect this trend to continue for a while yet. The Karrada bombing did not come out of the blue, many people like myself who are keen Iraq observers were expecting something like this to happen because Daesh wants the fallout to serve its causes and because the security establishment remains weak in Iraq. Terrorism is certainly the cause, but incompetence and corruption play a part in allowing it to occur.

On Saturday evening I was with friends in the western end of the Karrada area, near the Babylon Hotel, watching the Germany-Italy football match. It was a very warm night and we were sat outside in a popular restaurant cheering for Italy to win but expecting Germany to. At around midnight the match was forced into extra time and then a penalty shootout. Around me every one was watching nervously as the game reached its conclusion. At 12.50am it was the Germans who came out victorious and we all felt sorry for the Italians who never seem to do well at penalty kicks. As we were still discussing the result we suddenly felt the shockwave of a bomb and the loud sound of an explosion accompanying it, meaning it was nearby. Living in Baghdad means you learn to differentiate between a car bomb, a truck bomb, a Grad or Katyusha rocket, a mortar, a grenade, an improvised landmine or IED, a missile, or just a plain sound bomb. This sounded like it was a car bomb, not big enough for any more than that, perhaps 2-3 kilometres away, likely to kill 10 people and not out of the ordinary for a city that has seen hundreds of such incidents over the past decade. We all reached for our phones to see the initial reports on social media and within 5 minutes we saw messages that it was in Karrada, next to Hadi Center mall. We all said it would be bad because we knew how crowded that area gets at night. Next we got images of a raging fire and then we saw fire trucks and ambulances speeding past us down the Karrada Dakhil road towards the explosion site. The mood changed and nobody was talking about the football anymore, and then phones started ringing, with wives, mothers, sisters, daughters calling their family members to ask that they go back home. Suddenly the restaurant started to thin out, and by 2am I was pretty much the last one there (unthinkable on a usual night). I drove down Karrada Dakhil, and could see the orange glow from the flames in the night sky and the screams of sirens and people running. Panic was the overwhelming feeling that gripped this area and with more emergency vehicles cramming into the road I decided to move away and turned onto Karrada Kharij and back home. On Facebook and Twitter the photos posted were showing the mall engulfed in flames. The death toll began to creep past 15 and this started to look like a worse attack than I expected. At 4am I went to sleep thinking the situation would settle by late morning and we would get a death toll in the mid 30s.

That’s what happens in Iraq, deaths become just statistics and the frequency of attacks means the shock doesn’t register as it would elsewhere or that you have enough time to feel sad or grieve. I was near the Karrada area on 2 May 2015 when a twin bombing killed Ammar al-Shahbander, a friend of so many Iraqis and foreigners alike and one of the most energetic and optimistic people you could meet in Baghdad. He was killed, along with 16 others, very close to Hadi mall and on a similarly busy evening. Tragic but one of so many attacks, and I remembered Ammar while having an intense feeling of déjà vu.

My phone began to ring and buzz with calls and message alerts at 7am. The death toll had reached 65, I had several emails asking for an update and messages from friends and relatives checking on me, and news that PM Abadi was at the site of the bombing. I was shocked at the death toll, the explosion didn’t seem powerful enough for such a figure, perhaps there was something else that was not yet reported. At 8.30am I drove to work to expecting the usual rush hour traffic but the streets were strangely quiet, as if it was under curfew. The mood was depressing and the smell of fire hung over the city. Every person you looked in the face seemed in a state between shock and sadness, and you couldn’t tell if they were directly affected by the bombing or not. In a meeting at 9am some early details came to light and the number of dead surged past 80. Flames were still being put out, the basement of the mall was still too hot to enter, families were frantically searching through the ashes for their missing ones. From 10am to midday, in between calls, messages, and meetings, I watched on local TV and social media the death toll go up: 100, 110, 115, 120, 130, 140. A feeling of anger and sadness gripped me but the numbness from nearly identical experiences meant my emotions were in check. Then something changed to make the situation more real, to change it from a news event to a personal tragedy. I was told that a friend of mine, Ahmad Dhia, was missing and he was in the area at the time of the bombing, with his two brothers-in-law shopping for Eid presents for their families. I asked some of his other friends for an update, not wanting to call his family who had been up all night trying to get hold of him. His phone was last active at 12.55am, after that it could not be reached. At 1pm his work colleagues had found his car about 50 metres from the mall, but couldn’t get into the mall as bodies and charred corpses were still being pulled out slowly. His family had spread out across the city’s hospitals searching for him and a few friends were sent to the morgue to stay on watch in case his body showed up there. I’m not sure what I can do to help so I post on Twitter the news that he is missing with a faint hope that someone has some information, maybe they saw him injured in a hospital or he was seen earlier in the morning near the bomb site. By 4pm there was still no word and I had declined several media interviews because I didn’t feel up to commenting in my usual detached manner while Ahmad was still missing. A sense of dread had set in, your heart tells you to have hope and gives you several reasons why you haven’t heard from him yet, but your brain is telling you to be realistic, you know what has happened but do not want to accept it and any moment now it will be confirmed. I drive towards the bomb site but can’t get close enough to be of any use and while standing looking at the blackened sidewalk and gutted mall someone next to me who looks like he has been shovelling through ash the whole day stares at me and bluntly states ‘he is dead, whoever it is you are looking for is dead, if he hasn’t showed up this morning then just accept it’. It feels like a punch in the stomach, you want to respond or lash out but can’t get the words out because the wind is knocked out of you. I walk away because there is nothing to see except death and destruction, and this is a place where hope does not exist, extinguished by flames that have consumed so many young people, and despair has taken hold, something I don’t want to feel right now. At 6pm a message arrives: Ahmad’s burned body was pulled out from the basement. My brain has been trying to prepare me for this but it still hurts as if it is completely unexpected. I’m not sure what to do or how to express what I feel, I just sit and stare at the wall for a bit. I open Ahmad’s Facebook page, I want to see photos of him smiling, to remember him as a wonderful young man, not to think of his burned body. I tear up as I flick through the photos, he was going to achieve so much, he should not be dead.


Ahmed Dhiyaa, in whom I saw hope for Iraq

Ahmad was one of a new generation of well-educated Iraqis who hoped to turn the country around. He worked at the Agriculture Commission which coordinated with several ministries to improve Iraq’s agriculture sector. Ahmad was always writing about ways to enhance modern farming, to increase crop yields, to better manage water resources, to sustainably develop livestock, and every weekend would spend a day at some farm or factory in the provinces where work was taking place to do just that. He wrote a paper last year for us at Bayan Center on sustainable development of agriculture and was working on a paper on food security and crop yields. He was Abu Yusif to his friends and was an optimist who had an infectious energy, totally convinced that our country’s future would be better than its past.

As night falls I continue to decline news interviews, not sure what I would actually say when live on air, probably afraid that I wouldn’t seem calm and dignified, not at all like an analyst who has commented on dozens of such events in the past. On TV I see a crowd has gathered to light candles at the bomb site and some to protest against Daesh and the government, and a mixture of grieving, defiance, and anger is on display as hundreds of people gather in Karrada. A friend calls me from the scene to say that they are using their phones as flashlights because bodies are still being pulled out from the mall. He says the ashes are smouldering and that several people are still missing, including Ahmad’s two brothers-in-law. Over 80 charred corpses are yet to be identified and he thinks the death toll will easily be over 200. This last bit puzzles me, how could a car bomb (SVBIED in this instance to use the analyst parlance) have killed so many, there wasn’t even the usual crater in the road or blast damage to the buildings. Then I remember the details from earlier in the day and realise that it was the fire that killed all those people, the car bomb killed far less.

The Hadi mall was designed, as the vast majority of buildings in Iraq, with no fire safety in mind. There were no emergency exits, the door to the roof was welded shut to prevent the entry of burglars and no sprinklers were in place to assist with putting out fires. There may have been some fire extinguishers but I doubt it. The only way in and out of the building was through the single front entrance. The entire building was clad in plastic based panels, even more combustible than the aluminium based ones blamed for large fires in Dubai hotels this year. Fire safety inspections are rare and weak, and the mall was full of stores with flammable goods with little quality controls. In front of the mall the sidewalk was packed with vendors selling cheap clothes on the ground, perfect material for fires to consume. Next to them were mobile stalls selling falafel and fast food, with deep fryers and several gas canisters underneath. To the side were hundreds of crushed cardboard boxes and discarded packaging ready to be collected by the cleaners in the morning. In all, it was everything needed for an inferno, and the explosion killed a small number of people instantly but the subsequent fire that spread quickly trapped people in the mall and burned them alive. Bodies that looked like they survived the fire were killed by smoke inhalation. In the basement several bodies were found huddled close together, a desperate attempt to protect each other in the final moments. One father’s burned corpse was found shielding his daughter’s. A scene of unimaginable horror, these people died while screaming for help as the flames consumed them. The nearest fire station is at Uqba ibn Nafi Square, too far away to respond quickly (Karrada should have its own) and when they did the water they carried in their fire engines ran out after a short while. One person survived miraculously by jumping into a chest freezer and was rescued before it had completely melted but that was the only such story I’ve heard. Inquiries and inquests rarely lead to results but I fear if the lessons are not learned from the Karrada fire then such disasters could easily occur again.

On Monday the numbers had now become records, the worst attack in Baghdad since 2003 (Only the Speicher massacre and the Imams Bridge stampede had a higher single incident casualty toll). The recriminations are underway, politicians using the tragedy for score settling or to outdo each other in their condemnations and even sectarian innuendo. People are disgusted at the entire ruling system in Iraq, blaming them as much as Daesh. Perhaps that is the biggest change I’ve seen over the years in such attacks, a paradigm shift where the first point of responsibility is the government rather than the terrorists who conducted the attack. Emotions are raw the whole day as images of the victims are shared widely and then their stories, most of them young people, some recent graduates, some working in clothes stalls to earn a living, all of them with people who loved them dearly. The burials begin and Ahmad’s body is interred at Wadi al-Salam in Najaf by his parents and relatives, but his two sisters remain in Baghdad to continue looking for their husbands’ bodies among the ashes and in the morgue.


Ahmed Dhiyaa (18 February 1983 – 3 July 2016)

The Karrada area has been targeted many times over the past decade, and each time there is a call for better protection from bombings but that never results in much change. Around 18 months ago security in the capital had improved and the checkpoint leading into Karrada Dakhil down from Kahramana Square was removed to improve traffic flow. Several small side streets were also opened up having been closed since 2004, and the Baghdad curfew was lifted which encouraged people to stay out late. After the May 2015 bombing the checkpoint was reinstalled but the inherent security risk persisted; cars could easily get into one of the busiest thoroughfares in Baghdad without being searched or checked and park up next shops and cafes filled with hundreds of people in a compact area. On Saturday the intelligence services had received a tip off that a bombing was expected that night and so just after 9pm the checkpoint was closed and cars turned back. For some unknown reason it was briefly reopened around midnight before being closed again. Dozens of cars were allowed into the area and that is when the terrorist made his way in.

Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, carried out by ‘Abu Maha al-Iraqi’ against a gathering of ‘rafidhi apostates’ a derogatory term for Shia Muslims. That’s what Daesh does, it sets itself up as a Sunni group defending Sunnis by killing Shias because they are Shia, hoping to incite a reaction and a spiral into endless violence. Daesh bombs cannot distinguish between Shia and Sunni and that is why several Sunnis were killed in the bombing, but the message they put out is consistent and clear; they aim to kill Shia Muslims because they are Shia. If any Sunnis are killed in such attacks then that is incidental and not planned, and when Sunnis are targeted it is because they have betrayed their people rather than just for being Sunni. Such sectarian framing is difficult to get away from in a region burning up in sectarian proxy wars and Iraq is at the front line of these wars. It is a trap that many Iraqis and Arabs fall into and I was appalled to read such reactions on social media and even on TV which encouraged accepting the sectarian narrative of such events and the necessary sectarian reply to them. I don’t spend much energy discussing this issue and I don’t intend to here, but we have a societal problem in the Middle East that renders us highly susceptible to sectarian discourse. Education is part of the problem as are the scholars, media and politicians, but it is also the fear that terrorism has sown among communities that leads to sectarian violence (in the words of Yoda: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Angers leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering). This is exactly what I can see after Saturday’s bombing, fear that more lives will be lost, fear of the other that they will respond, anger at the other, anger at not doing enough to stop it and that extreme measures are required, hate of the other of what they have done and what they will do, the wish to impart suffering on the other so that they will desist.

Daesh is the culprit and the killer, it proudly boasts of its responsibility and so it is to be blamed for what happened. However, anger is also rightly directed at the political and security systems because they bear responsibility for the failings that allow Daesh to conduct such attacks. Corruption is endemic and systemic in Iraq, it is what allows terrorism to strike successfully and this is what happened on Saturday night. Somebody in the security services allowed the bomber to get into Karrada, somebody knew about it and was paid well to keep quiet, and somebody turned a blind eye to such failings time and again. Minor checkpoints are an absolute waste in the way they are operated at the moment, several of them are even a means to extort money from civilians for non-existent traffic offences. My criticisms of these checkpoints are:

  • They do not prevent the free movement of terrorists and car bombs because they do not stop or search vehicles nowhere near enough to catch anyone, they simply wave everyone through
  • They are static and predictable and can be easily avoided with enough planning
  • There are no sniffer dogs or x-ray vehicles to check for weapons and bombs
  • They cause a build-up of traffic that becomes a target in itself
  • The police manning these checkpoints are lazy, on their phones or chatting with each other or not interested in stopping anyone
  • There is no intelligence provided to make searches more effective, the police do not know what they are supposed to be looking for and it is a needle in a haystack effort
  • The officers manning the checkpoints can be tricked, intimidated or bribed into letting vehicles through
  • Fake number plates and ID cards are easily available and no mechanism exists to check these at the minor checkpoints
  • They build reliance and overconfidence that they will prevent bombings, especially when using those pathetic fake bomb detectors
  • They take away manpower and resources that could be better put to use elsewhere

I would much rather these internal checkpoints are removed and replaced with other security measures that improve city wide security as opposed to focusing on individual neighbourhoods. Some suggestions:

  • Deploy moving, rolling and random checkpoints equipped with sniffer dogs that can quickly check vehicles
  • Mobile police patrols on foot that can observe behaviour and movements from within crowds
  • CCTV at all major roads to monitor vehicles being parked and suspicious activity
  • Robust checkpoints at city entry points that search and x-ray every vehicle
  • Preventing cars being parked next to crowded areas, using parking garages instead
  • Continuous aerial surveillance to track suspicious vehicles and people that move across neighbourhoods without alerting them
  • A thorough clean out and retraining of the police force
  • Deployment of plain clothes intelligence agents from inter-agency departments near crowded areas and mosques, etc to discreetly observe movements
  • Encouraging the formation of a neighbourhood watch that can alert to the presence of suspicious vehicles and packages

But there is much more to it than that, in order to achieve better security the entire state needs to be fixed. The politics are broken, the economy is struggling, the justice system needs improving, trust from the people needs to be regained. While these issues are not addressed then security will continue to suffer. Daesh will be defeated on the battlefield but our weaknesses as a nation and state will persist unless radical change occurs. I cannot foresee a better future without us learning from the past, we cannot fight our way to peace and prosperity nor expect good intentions from our friends and enemies. We must do better as Iraqis, from the individual citizen to the head of state, the past 13 years have shown that true dedication to the country is rare and faith has disappeared. The Karrada attack highlights the evil of Daesh and also the failings of Iraqis. The bitter truth is that Daesh is to blame but there is a tiny bit of Daesh in all Iraqis/Arabs/Muslims, waiting for the provocation to set us off against each other. I’ve often mentioned that the ideology of Daesh is what must be addressed and the danger of extremist teachings must be tackled but Daesh is not completely foreign and it has supporters inside Iraq as well as outside. The reality is that Shias and Sunnis must live side-by-side in Iraq and nothing can change that. Peace can only be reached if violence is rejected as a means of achieving goals, and no side is capable of wiping out the other but that message has still not sunk in.

I’ll end my comments here as I started, with an assessment of the security situation. Will there be reprisals (probably not as the scale of the disaster has brought some unity), will Daesh continue with attacks (yes and they will be eager to take advantage of the palpable fear and anger), will this lead to the fall of the government (no but some heads will have to roll in order to show an effort to tackle the security problem).


Some of the victims, all leaving behind grieving families

We lost so many bright and talented people on Saturday night, and we should grieve and remember them in the most fitting manner. Our response as a nation should be to unite, to support our armed forces to prevent the terrorists from winning, to help our communities protect each other, and most of all to not allow fear and hate to consume us. For the politicians this should serve as a wakeup call, they need to stop maximising their political gains at the cost of innocent lives. For the security and intelligence services they need to do better, negligence, incompetence and corruption allowed the Karrada disaster to happen. For religious leaders and paramilitary leaders, please focus your energies on Daesh, do not take advantage of our broken hearts to further sectarian agendas. For our neighbours, please help us by tackling sectarian hate, stop the proxy wars and stop using our country as a means to an end. For the world, please remember Iraq and its people in your prayers, your show of support means a great deal.

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The end of Ahmed Chalabi

Ahmed's legacy is a post-Saddam Iraq

Ahmed’s legacy is a post-Saddam Iraq

For most people reading about Ahmed Chalabi today after news of his passing, it will all be about the 2003 war, WMDs, and the neocons. However, there is much more to his story than that and I feel it deserves mentioning when discussing the man.

In terms of his contribution to Iraqi history we can look at it in three periods:

  • The 80s all the way through to March 2003
  • April 2003 to mid 2006
  • 2006 until today

The first period is perhaps his most notable contribution and what he will want to be remembered for. It was during this time that he became the organiser and leader of the exiled Iraqi opposition. He brought together a wide array of factions to work with his INC, including Islamists, ex-Baathists, communists, Kurds, secularists, nationalists, technocrats, and others. He supported relief efforts after the 1991 uprising, personally bankrolling several aid projects. He organised several key conferences of the Iraqi opposition during the 90s, and was the key proponent of the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 that Congress passed and Clinton signed. He brought Iraqi voices to the State Department, the White House, and other places that Iraqis desperately wanted to reach during Saddam’s time. He was key to the ceasefire in Kurdistan, convincing Barzani and Talabani to stop fighting each other. Several of Iraq’s post 2003 ministers and politicians owed their career to Ahmed, he brought them out of obscurity and pushed them into positions of power. He paid for opposition newspapers, journalists, writers, conferences that worked for regime change. He was a key figure in the December 2002 London conference that led to the Governing Council being formed after the war, and also formalised the sectarian/political quota system. But this was also the period where he was accused of defrauding the Petra Bank, of providing false intel to the Pentagon, of supporting by any means the neocon desire to remove Saddam. Ahmed, more than any other Iraqi, contributed to the fall of Saddam.

The second period is when he hoped to realise his ambition, and at that time pretty much everybody, Iraqi and American, had expected Ahmed to become Prime Minister. It was his destiny and his reward. He was perfect for the part, the politicians owed him, there was no one else more deserving. Unfortunately for him the role he played pre-2003 was forgotten, and he was naïve to expect anything. He had little influence in the Iraqi street, no real power with which to impose himself. One term in the Governing Council was followed by the shock of Allawi’s appointment as interim PM rather than him. He was bitter at that, he began to lose friends in the Pentagon and State Department after the truth of the WMD claims began to come to light, and he found himself allying more closely with the Shia Islamists out of necessity, after pushing for debaathifcation immediately from Bremer’s time. Called a liar in the US, a sectarian and corrupt Shiite in Iraq, he fully fell out of favour with the US after they suspected he was passing sensitive information to the Iranians (US troops ransacked his home and office in Baghdad). The accusations of corruptions were during the 2003-2004 period when Bremer was handing out billions in shrink-wrapped dollars to almost every major politician. Whenever talk of choosing a PM came about he was in the running, but it was not to be.

The third period was his biggest disappointment, squeezed out by the Shia parties as he was never considered one of them, lacklustre results in elections, lack of support from any foreign country (including Iran), realising his ambitions at ruling Iraq were over, his trial by media in the US deciding his guilt in the WMD affair, and his dwindling role and influence in Iraqi politics. Every time the question of proposing a new PM came about he was inevitably mentioned as a candidate, but the hardnosed politicians knew he was never a real choice. Abandoned by all, the Iraqis, the Americans, he saw several of his INC seniors defect to others, and being overlooked for any top positions. During this time he was accused of corruption with regards to reconstruction contracts and the TBI fraud (his nephew ran the bank). It was in this period that the name Ahmed Chalabi meant the least in Iraqi politics. But he remained a patriot, and despite his faults, he wanted the best for his country.

For those who still support the removal of Saddam, and are glad to see the back of the Baath party, then they should mourn Ahmed Chalabi and erect a statue for him. For those that do not, they will be glad to see his passing, another memory from 2003 to be forgotten. For the majority of Iraq’s people, his death will not mean much, a name of someone that they didn’t really know or identify with. It is a story of failed ambition.

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Inside Tikrit

Following the recent coalition airstrikes and reports that the Hashd had withdrawn I was able to go out to Tikrit to get a view from the front on how the operations were proceeding. The day began with a meeting in central Baghdad with Major General Atheer Muhammad Jasim (Head of Intelligence, Federal Police) who showed us a gallery of operations conducted by his intelligence services that led to the capture or killing of several top daesh commanders, including Abu Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, head of the Military Council for daesh, on 4 June 2014 in Mosul. This particular operation, conducted using intel gathered from interrogations (his car, the area he lived in, name of his wife), also led to the capture of Bilawi’s driver who informed his interrogators that daesh was planning to take over large areas of Mosul in the coming days. This information was passed onto the army’s Nineveh Operations Command but they did not act on it as a priority. It was confirmed that General Gharawi himself had received this information.

Our armoured convoy travelled onto Samarra where we were joined by a colonel in Salahudin’s FP Intelligence. He had the difficult job of ensuring those returning to the areas that had been resecured by the ISF were not daesh members. He was also working on leads and managing informants inside daesh itself. I asked how these informants came to be and the colonel explained that there were three types: those trained by his unit years ago and over the past year bad been rising up the ranks inside daesh, those who either had contacted his unit to become informants or were pressured/enticed to become informants, and those who were unwitting informants, under constant surveillance and left to operate without facing arrest as they were more valuable that way.

On the road to Tikrit we saw 4 battalions of Federal Police that were redeployed from al-Alam and other secure areas to southern Tikrit. The total number of FP participating in the Tikrit battle were 5,000 across 10 battalions. On the Samarra-Tikrit highway we also noticed a large number of Hashd fighters heading towards Tikrit. Checkpoints and major buildings were also staffed by Hashd and it was abundantly clear that very few or no PMU had actually withdrawn from Tikrit. In fact during discussions with FP and PMU commanders the only confirmed withdrawal from Tikrit were Saraya al-Salam who had just arrived in the area the week before.

We reached al-Awja, Saddam’s hometown, to the south of the city just before midday. This was clearly the frontline not too long ago but now contained several temporary operating bases for the FP and PMU. Some were large houses, others municipality or school buildings that now housed commanders and fighters who moved back and forth from the frontlines to the north. Some homes were damaged from artillery strikes and gun battles, others had holes in the walls where large-calibre weapons or sniper fire had struck. Some were completely demolished, clearly from explosive detonations, the dreaded booby-trapped houses. But a few houses were also burnt, with blackened exteriors and gutted interiors. On most of these houses there were anti-daesh slogans and PMU graffiti. No civilians were in sight, and this was also the case for al-Dour across the river, but families had returned to Mkesheifa near by.

We moved further north, past the airport and inside the city limits adjacent to the highway and the river, to the Municipal Council building overlooking the city centre, that was now a temporary forward operating base for the FP. There we met with Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, overall Commander of the Federal Police, who answered several questions on the operations. He explained that the Hashd were all retaining their current positions but were not moving forward or participating in offensives while the coalition airstrikes were taking place. His FP units were now operating from south Tikrit, the army were operating from the north and northwest (from Camp Speicher and the university), and the PMU held the east.

We climbed up to the roof of the building but were warned not to stay too long as daesh snipers could target us easily. Lt Gen Jawdat’s car had been hit by a sniper earlier in the morning but no damage was done. We could see almost the entire city centre from this position but the routes into it were too open making a vehicle approach risky. We could see the teaching hospital in the Shishen area directly ahead of us, and behind that we could just make out the tops of the Republican palaces complex. After a few moments a colonel asked us to come down as they intercepted daesh radio traffic that ordered our position to be targeted. This was almost the frontline and we could see heavy weaponry close to our position. We were hurried out of the site and moved back south to a safer location.

Estimates of daesh inside Tikrit were around 800, and the few families inside the city belonged to daesh members. Saddam’s palaces were linked by underground tunnels and these were being used by daesh to avoid air strikes and move freely across the town thus slowing down the ISF advance. The biggest obstacle by far was the massive amounts of IEDs that had been laid down. Not enough engineering corps had been deployed thus far and the PMU had tried to dismantle these with basic skills but ended up making a mess. While on the roof of the building we saw several artillery strikes launch from nearby but these were steady and not intensive. The advantage of coalition airstrikes is that they were more accurate and could deploy bunker-busting bombs to destroy tunnels. Iraqi air force jets were also striking daesh (we saw 2 Sukhoi jets overhead) but these, alongside Nighthunter helicopters, and the artillery guns, only struck verified targets to avoid large-scale damage. But my feeling was that these strikes, alongside the coalition strikes, were not intensive enough to change the situation dramatically.

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North of Baghdad – part two

The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights was recently tasked with preparing a report for the PM’s National Reconciliation advisor regarding the return of IDPs to their homes in Diyala and Salahudin, investigating alleged abuses by the PMU, and looking at the mass graves uncovered near Tikrit that contain victims of the Speicher massacre. Very few members of the Commission and their staff were willing to go out to Diyala and Salahudin fearing the security situation and that locals may be hostile. Eventually one member managed to convince her staff to go on a visit to areas secured by the Iraqi forces. I arranged to join the convoy departing on 25 March to get more first hand accounts of the situation in these areas.

Dhuluiyah is a small town of around 65,000 people, half of which hail from the Jibour tribe and the other half from mainly 2 other tribes. All the residents are Sunni Arab and it is largely surrounded by the Tigris, making it difficult to access now that only one temporary bridge is in operation. It was besieged by daesh for several months, attacked from the Khazraj village to the north (Jibouris blame the Albu Jawari), the dirt road into Diyala from the west, and the embankment across the Tigris to the south. At the end of last year daesh had been pushed out of the surrounding areas and the siege was lifted, with families returning to their homes, some struggling to make ends meet with little income and government support, and in the worst cases a largely demolished house.

We were greeted on our arrival by Dhakir al-Jibouri, one of the tribal leaders in Dhuluiyah, who had invited key people from the local community to meet us and also offer us a traditional breakfast. Sheikh Dhakir, Abu Faisal, was the Sahwa leader in the area and had lost 7 of his close relatives in the fight against AQ in previous years. The locals explained to us how they managed to hold out against a vicious enemy, who lobbed over 3,000 mortar rounds and used suicide boats, sniper fire and RPGs to try to wear down the town’s defences. In the end just over 650 inhabitants of Dhuluiyah were killed, 500 of them were actually fighting for daesh. This was the uncomfortable truth that faced several Sunni Arab communities; daesh were in their own families. One police colonel who employed his cousins as his bodyguards was killed by them at the onset of the siege. Other stories show a similar pattern of betrayal and opportunism.

During the breakfast meeting we were introduced to Abu Aqil from the Albu Badri tribe, who turns out to be a distant cousin of daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Aside from disowning his infamous relative, he also explained that the most immediate danger to the families returning to their homes was inter-tribal conflict. This also extended to intra-tribal disputes as well, partly financial, but partly owing to one family having a daesh member who killed someone from another family.

We visited the new graveyard that had around 150 graves for those killed in the siege, mostly from the Jibour tribe. Some were very young children, some were elderly men, but all of them were locals who died inside Dhuluiyah. As we drove out of town we saw a large poster with an image of Hadi al-Ameri with a caption saying it was a gift from the local people in honour of the man who rescued them. Sheikh Dhakir said they owed their lives to the marjaiyah and Hadi al-Ameri, who led the Badr fighters across from Diyala and into Dhuluiyah, Balad, and then Samarra. But he was critical of the government for not providing enough support since the siege was lifted.

Our next stop was in Samarra where we met with Ameri and he set about answering questions in his usual defiant manner. Was US help needed in Tikrit? No. Why was there a delay in the battle? The Iraqi Army needed more time to complete its preparations in the western front of Tikrit before a push into the centre. Had homes been burned by fighters entering recaptured areas? Yes but these were a few isolated incidents by ignorant men out for destruction and perpetrators were caught and punished. What about homes that were detonated? Yes most of these were necessary because homes were booby-trapped and several people were killed when entering these homes.

He also mentioned having to mediate in inter-tribal conflict in the regained areas and that nobody could stop him from entering Mosul and securing it. There were comments of annoyance/criticism with the US, the media, the Iraqi army, human rights organisations, and those who denounce the PMU without also mentioning the achievements and successes.

The PMU role is undoubtedly the most contentious in the post-daesh Iraq. The most ideal scenario is that they are integrated into the proposed National Guard. Current estimates of the total numbers are 110,000 fighters under 39 different groups. What is seen at the moment is a concerted effort by each of these groups to maintain a distinct identity and not be subsumed under the PMU label. They have their own branding, bases, weaponry, leadership, and everything else that enables them as paramilitary groups, or as referred to by the media, militias.

The final stop was meant to be al-Alam just outside Tikrit but it was getting late in the day and we were discouraged from heading there. Privately I had known that a new wave of operations were due to begin that night in Tikrit but al-Alam is not on the front line and so it was technically possible to go there. On the way back to Baghdad we passed through Dhuluiyah again were we stopped at a home that housed 9 families whose homes were destroyed in the siege. Rebuilding efforts were slow in these parts and though sectarianism seemed to be on the wane, the danger of violence from other causes was not far away.


North of Baghdad

I read in several media reports that the battle for Tikrit was not going well, that hundreds of men from the PMU had been killed. I arranged to visit Samarra, less than an hour’s drive from the frontlines in Tikrit to see for myself what the situation was.

We left in a convoy of 3 armored vehicles from central Baghdad at 9.15am, making our way onto the main highway that connects Baghdad with Mosul. At almost regular 5km intervals there were checkpoints manned by either Interior or Defence ministry forces. Some checkpoints leading onto or off the main highway were manned by PMU under various paramilitary group names. Evidence of battles and explosions could be seen once we passed Taji and leading up to Dujail. Shops, homes, garages and other buildings adjacent to the highway were blackened, flattened, and pockmarked. But these were leftovers from last summer and the security situation seemed to be normal as labourers, farmers, and vehicles delivering goods were moving in and out of villages and towns freely. After passing the road to Balad and past Ishaqi the landscape became more open with little sign of any violence having taken place.

Parts of the highway had diversions from one side to the other because repairs to the tarmac were about to be carried out, treating the road surfaces damaged by IEDs. But overall the road was in good condition, we were able to drive at speeds around 70mph in most parts, and the checkpoints were quick to search and release vehicles.

We arrived in Samarra at 11am to a city busy with activity but more resembling an army base than a pilgrimage destination. Banners, flags, portraits, and posters were covering every last bit of available space on billboards and street signs. Clearly this was the operational headquarters of the PMU and while the various groups coordinated under this umbrella, they also had their own distinct identities. The road leading to the Askari shrine was heavy with human traffic, and on the side were huge pots of food being cooked by the various mawakib that had setup to serve both pilgrims and the military. The people walking to the shrines were a mix of domestic and foreign pilgrims, MoD/MoI/PMU soldiers, local and central government officials, and clerics from various towns of southern Iraq.

After visiting the shrine and discussing with officials there the developments in the rebuilding of the shrine and the surrounding area, we made our way to the Salahudin Operations Command via the main hospital. At the hospital we met with the general manager and went to see the morgue where the dead were stored temporarily. I asked specifically about the numbers of dead who were brought in from the Tikrit operations and the numbers were much lower than what was reported. They counted in the waves that came due to various operations and in the past week they had 28, 7, 5, 11, 3, and 6. Additionally they had some individually recorded names but the total for the entire week was below 100. I mentioned that the same hospital was a source for a report that 100 bodies a day were passing through it but the manager dismissed it immediately because the refrigerators they had could only store about half that amount and had asked the Health ministry for more in order to increase their capacity as they were trying to avoid refusing non-military dead who were being brought in from other areas of Salahudin as people began to return to their homes.

At the Operational command centre we had a quick meeting with the field commanders who updated us on the Tikrit operation and recent security events in the province. While I can’t discuss the details of what was said there was confirmation that the Tikrit operations had been deliberately slowed down by the Army leadership because they wanted to limit losses in securing the city centre which was booby trapped almost in its entirety. Again the talk of hundreds of losses was dismissed but there was a consensus that daesh were still dangerous though under siege. Interestingly there were small scale operations still running across the province because daesh had pockets who were operating hit and run attacks. Mortar strikes and sniper fire were the main tactics that served to cause a nuisance and prevent more troops being moved forward to Hawija and Baiji.

Before returning to Baghdad we spoke to some residents of Samarra. Some complained of the militarization of the city and that the local economy had ground to a halt because of it. Others wanted their homes and businesses to be purchased by the Shi’a endowment or the federal government so they could move elsewhere. Most were bitterly angry at daesh and said that their families and tribes suffered more than anyone else but that the government did not recognise this. These were people who felt they had no support from anywhere but were looking for a reason to be proud again of their country. I did ask if they had been mistreated by the various PMU operating in the city but their answers were limited to the difficulty of movement. My queries about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were met with reluctance and indifference, with one person saying this was another shame being imprinted on Sunni Arabs so they would continue to be viewed with suspicion.

The drive back began at 3.30pm and we arrived at our original destination in central Baghdad at 5pm. I stated on 2 March when the Tikrit operations began that 1 month would be a good, optimistic target to aim for in terms of securing the city and that it would take well over that time for the rest of the province. With 10 days of that target left I still feel this is a good target and can see no reason for panic.

I also saw an opportunity for the government in winning back the people of Samarra and areas like it but unfortunately the focus is almost exclusively on the military front at the moment.

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Updated list of daesh leaders

Following airstrikes and operations that have successfully killed several of the mid and high level leadership of daesh the new replacement appointments have been made quietly. Information gleaned from intelligence has revealed the names of the new leaders and this list is correct as of early February. Non-Iraqis are identified and the list is not exhaustive.

  1. Ibrahim Awad al-Badri AKA Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – Caliph
  2. Mustafa Abdul Rahman al-Khatuni AKA Haji Iman and Abu Alaa – Deputy Caliph and head of the Military Council
  3. Taha Sobhi Falaha AKA Abu Muhammad al-Adnani – Spokesman [Syrian]
  4. Dr. Wael al-Rawi – Head of Media
  5. Turki bin Mubarak bin Abdullah al-Binali AKA Abu Sufyan al-Silmi and Abu Dhurgham – Chief Shari’i (cleric) [Bahraini]
  6. Muhammad Yusuf AKA Abu Bakr al-Khatuni – Head of Shura Council for Iraq emirate
  7. Bakr Hadi AKA Dr. Salah Abu Jafar – Wali of Baghdad
  8. Ayad Bashar al-Mohamadi AKA Abu Anas – Wali of Forat region
  9. Mahmud al-Dulaimi AKA Abu Mansur and Abu Muawiya – Wali of Diyala region
  10. Fadhil al-Ithawi AKA Haji Arif – Wali of Southern region
  11. Yunus Salim Hussain al-Jibouri AKA Abu Hamza – Wali of Nineveh region
  12. Saad al-Obaidi AKA Abu Abdul Salam – Wali of Anbar region
  13. Ayub Sheehan al-Samri – Wali of border region
  14. Haji Kamil al-Isoodi – Wali of Salahudin region
  15. Hamid Shakir Mahmud al-Badri – Head of Security for Syrian emirate
  16. Bandar al-Shaalan – Head of Media in Syria [Saudi]
  17. Amer al-Rafdan – Wali of Deir Ezzour [Syrian]
  18. Saddam al-Jamal – Wali of Albu Kamal [Syrian]
  19. Tarkhan Batirashvili AKA Abu Omar al-Shishani – Head of the Mujahideen Army [Georgian]
  20. Walid al-Jilani – Head of Al-Battar Brigade in Libya [Libyan]
  21. Abu Anas al-Shaalan – Member of the Military Council
  22. Khalid Wajdi al-Inazi AKA Khalid al-Rusi – Member of the Military Council
  23. Amr al-Absi AKA Abu al-Athir – Wali of Aleppo [Saudi born Jordanian]
  24. Bakr bin Abdul Aziz AKA Abu Humam al-Athri – Member of the Media Board [Bahraini]
  25. Ali Musa al-Shawwakh AKA Abu Luqman – Wali of Raqqa [Syrian]
  26. Khalaf al-Dhiyab al-Halus AKA Abu Musaab – Member of the Military Council [Syrian]
  27. Tariq al-Jibouri AKA Abu Jalal – Member of the Military Council
  28. Abu Omar Qirdash AKA Abu Jasim al-Iraqi – Head of suicide bombers force
  29. Abu Omar al-Jibouri – Head of car bombing unit

Several names in the list are rumoured to have been killed in the past few weeks without a confirmation or denial by daesh so remain on the list for now. The Iraqi members of the list make up the majority and every single one of them was either in Saddam’s armed forces or security services.

Arabic source for the names
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Iraq at the crossroads

I spent the last weeks of 2014 and the first ones of 2015 in Iraq and felt it was important that I share some of what I witnessed. My time in Iraq was during the busiest time of the year, the time of religious festivals, annual budgets, and of course holidays. Iraq is a land of huge contrasts and of extremes, so I have kept several incidents to myself as they only perpetuate the negative impression of Iraq and its people. In recording some of what I observed I felt the keen disconnect of writing about Iraq as someone who has experienced it and as someone writing for an audience who have not. So these are some thoughts that I attempt to convey as a person who is both inside looking out and outside looking in.

My previous visit was in June/July 2014, a few days after the fall of Mosul I arrived in Baghdad attempting to source news and facts after daesh had made a startling success of its massive propaganda drive. While the military campaign to defeat daesh continues there has been a marked improvement in security, especially in Baghdad, which has been plagued by bombings and killings for over a decade. There is also much more confidence in the security services and the Popular Mobilization, with a growing expectance that daesh will be defeated by end of 2015.

The International Zone (aka the Green Zone) typifies the contrasts of Iraq, it is in the centre of Baghdad and hosts the institutions of the Iraqi state, but does not look or feel as if it is in Iraq. Those who live and work here are isolated from wider society, their experience of Iraq differs from those who live outside it. The streets are cleaner, there is no traffic, no security incidents, electricity never cuts out, and nearly everyone you meet is well-to-do or at least more comfortable than the majority. Some of the people I met either never venture out of the IZ (except to the airport) or do so as part of a convoy on official business to another institution. In the IZ you do not feel the heat, the threat of daesh, or the discontent of the people. Nobody comes into the IZ unless they have clearance, which means ordinary citizens generally never get in. This isolating effect on politicians and officials is damaging, they rarely have an idea of what life is like for the common person. In fact elections are usually the only time in which politicians meet people and are seen outside the IZ (I know some will say that is typical of other countries too).

Each politician is tied to a party, and the few that aren’t don’t make any headway. Senior and junior posts in the civil service, and the Cabinet itself, are allocated to parties. These parties then put forward their candidates, usually without recognition of the capability of that candidate. The PM himself complained in parliament that some of his ministers were forced on him despite his reservations about their capability. This situation compounds the issue of partisan politics, and each ministry, department, agency is overstaffed with competing factions of staff. At one government institution I saw dozens of staff queuing up near the main entrance at 2.45pm, half an hour before their work shift ends so that they can sign out quickly and go home. The few hardworking staff are viewed with suspicion and often find themselves clashing with peers and superiors because they try to do an honest job. In my visits to several offices I found that most civil servants suffered from low morale, felt a sense of entitlement and injustice, and were fiercely partisan. Productivity was largely absent and there seemed to be no desire from senior officials to change the status quo.

The issue of efficiency is dwarfed by that of corruption. It is so organised and so entrenched that even the highest authorities tread carefully. One example I heard from the Interior Minister highlights this: A tip off from senior staff alerted the minister to a contract that was signed by the Head of Procurement in the ministry for bulletproof vests to be distributed to Interior Ministry forces. The contract was for tens of millions of dollars with a foreign company. The officer, a veteran of the ministry with lots of powerful friends, had arranged for a complex set of transfers as payment for delivery of the vests, which arrived few in number and of dubious quality. The minister with his security detail heads to the officer unannounced and upon questioning him learns that there is a large warehouse where the vests are stored. The officer claims that these are samples and refuses to accompany the minister to the warehouse or have it opened. Literally at gunpoint the minister forces the officer to the warehouse where they discover hundreds of vests that were locally made knock offs. Not only did the Head of Procurement steal the funds intended for the foreign company but he also bought fake vests and then sold them to junior officers. The minister ordered his arrest immediately but was told a few days later that the officer was offering bribes of $10m to prison staff, prosecutors, senior officers, to be released. The minister was forced to send his own aides to keep an eye on him around the clock.

These sorts of stories are literally heard everywhere. Nearly every single ministry, department, agency is plagued with corruption. Honest staff are threatened, relocated, or set up with phony accusations against them. But there is one benefit of the economic downturn in Iraq; austerity has squeezed the amount of corruption possible and cases are being discovered daily. The PM is rightly concerned about corruption and sees it as a bigger threat than terrorism. He is hoping that much of it will be tackled before Iraq’s finances improve otherwise there is a danger that increased revenue for the government will end up funding corruption and not benefit the state at all.

The PM himself works long hours, too long in fact, the consequence of meeting with too many people every day. His time is taken up by mediating in crises and keeping political opponents working together. He and his staff have little time to plan ahead because of the inefficiency of the state and its bureaucracy. It seems the government is stuck in firefighting mode, not able to strategize or see beyond the immediate timeframe. An example of this is the oil price crisis where analysts had called for the price to fall under $80 even before the fall of Mosul. Yet the government had failed to heed the warnings and by mid-November still expected oil to average at $80 per barrel in 2015, and was forced to change that to $70 and then $56 by the time the budget was passed at the end of January.

Other woes are well documented and affect every sphere in Iraq. A lot of responsibility, if not cause, falls on the previous administration, who did not make the most of relative stability from 2009 onwards. The blame game can carry on endlessly but I honestly feel that all sides take their share; the Shia parties for their lack of statesmanship and failure to implement good governance, the Sunnis for not accepting the changed realities and undermining the new Iraq, the Kurds for pushing their independence agenda at the cost of the rest of Iraq, the US for destroying it in 2003 and not having a good strategy for properly rebuilding it, and neighbouring countries who are fighting proxy wars and co-opting whoever they can. Ordinary people who I met are largely still partisan and filled with mistrust of the other as a result of endless rhetoric and skewed media coverage. There is very little appetite for self-evaluation, honest and constructive criticism, or reconciliation. But the small minority that does want these is growing, giving hope that a new generation might lead Iraq better than the previous one.

In order for Iraq to rebuild properly there are several major changes that need to take place. I will outline some of these:

  • Reform of and legislation of laws on Provincial powers, Labour, Tax, National and Foreign Investment, Judiciary, Hydrocarbons, Political Parties, Land and Planning, and Privatization
  • Push for decentralization and better implementation of federalism
  • Restructuring of foreign policy and lessening dependence on both the US and Iran, reworking relationship with Turkey, improving ties with Gulf states, and leveraging ties with Egypt, Jordan, China, India and Japan, building existing relationships with EU, Russia
  • Agree on independence referendum with KRG to take place in 2017 with a simple yes/no question
  • Austerity, productivity, efficiency, and anti-corruption drives to reduce size of civil service, increase working hours, reduce holidays, limit middle management, and cut budgets for departments
  • Introduce a single national biometric card that covers identity, address, proof of entitlements, elections, security, banking
  • Removal of all subsidies except for the poorest in society (those on welfare), end of ration card system and divert funds to welfare
  • Build financial systems (banking, currency) to reduce reliance on cash, open up credit and loans
  • Reform of healthcare sector
  • Introduce major civil society program to include revised education curriculums, reconciliation programs, media reform, compulsory gap year/national service, support for NGOs, easing social mobility

I am aware that some of these steps are already on the agenda and while these are not all the solutions for a better Iraq they do represent some of the most pressing ones. Perhaps the most important change needed is in the mindset of the average Iraqi; a better educated, tolerant, hardworking, and good citizen one is needed.

It is possible that Iraq has more than twice the current estimated oil reserves it has, in which case it can become a G20 economy easily if the right administration is in place. But economic wealth is only one aspect of why Iraq is important and should succeed. Iraq is not a failed state and will not become one but it does need reforms in order to recover from being the broken society that was left post 2003. In fact I see the challenges of 2014 as being a positive catalyst; the security services are being reformed, the government looks stronger, and the international community is supporting Iraq more than ever. Whatever path Iraq takes these next few years will not be an easy one but decisions made at the crossroads today will make the journey worthwhile or not.

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