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Following the recent coalition airstrikes and reports that the Hashd had withdrawn I was able to go out to Tikrit to get a view from the front on how the operations were proceeding.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and major buildings were also staffed by Hashd and it was abundantly clear that very few or no PMU had actually withdrawn from Tikrit.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.

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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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Background on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu-bakr-al-Baghdadi

Newsweek released a profile on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this week and several useful bits of information came to light. Some of my quotes were based on an assessment of him I wrote recently:

I highly doubt the claim that he was an active militant before 2003 (see Bruce Riedel’s claim) as we have seen very little evidence of any Iraqis being involved with jihadist groups before the US invasion. The claim that he is from the Badri family in Samarra has not been refuted so far but my limited research has not yielded any confirmation from Baghdad’s universities and colleges that a man with such a name obtained a doctorate from there as his supporters claim. Reports that he was a preacher at one of Samarra’s mosques have only been found in daesh propaganda and ‘biographies’ of him but I highly doubt he was a person of any repute, capability or credentials pre-2003 (partly because he was too young). I would not be surprised if he was not even a religious person as most of the Iraqis who became involved in jihadist groups were secular Baathists before 2003. I’m sure he served in the Iraqi army at some point (compulsory service) so had some basic military training and expect that he had good links with the Baathist security apparatus pre and post 2003 (partly through relatives), and came into contact with individuals who were actively forming cells based on models of Zarqawi’s JTJ to destabilise Iraq (which were largely based north of Baghdad and south of Samarra), which led to the formation of JJASJ of which he is claimed to have been a part.

The Americans detained him for most of 2004 in Camp Bucca as a ‘civilian internee’ which means he was linked to a terrorist group but not caught actively engaged in terrorist activities. They released him because he seemingly posed no threat at the time which again shows that he was not a notable figure at the time. It is known that radicalisation took place in Bucca (several daesh leaders were held there at the same time before eventual release) so Baghdadi’s rise began with his detainment where he met his future network and collaborators. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, the success of Zarqawi, the discontent of the Sunnis areas of Iraq would all have presented an opportunity for him to build on his new career as an insurgent. As an Iraqi he would be better able to coordinate with locals than foreigners which would explain his rise to prominence but most reports point to him only being a member of the sharia committees of JJASJ, then MSM, and then ISI, not as a commander of note. Because he was pretty much unknown between 2005-2010 I would not be surprised if he was held shortly at some point by the Iraqis and it is claimed that he was the MSM commander for the town of Rawa in Anbar province, and that he facilitated the entry of foreign fighters from Syria and Saudi Arabia into Iraq through that area. He probably has lived in Baghdad and Mosul at some point during these past few years but very few people got to meet him and those that did saw him wearing a mask. This was partly because of security (his predecessors and peers were all killed using tip-offs and intel) but I think he used the period 2010-2014 to beef up his religious knowledge and to build an aura of mystery around his character. His Friday prayer appearance showed a calm individual whose use of the Qur’an reflects a level of training and education that had prepared him for the occasion. His recorded audio speeches are edgier though and his dealings with JAN and AQ have shown that he views himself as superior and has a hint of disdain for non-Iraqis. The photos of him from his detainment in 2004 and the one released by the Iraqi Interior ministry earlier this year to me show an ambitious terrorist not a caliph. Baghdadi is a man who revels in his position as the world’s top terrorist and sees himself as the successor to Bin Laden. When he arrived in Camp Bucca he was scared and looking for a way out, now he commands a semi-functional ‘state’ and its army. His transformation was complete when he appeared in Mosul as the ‘caliph’ but it is obvious that much effort has gone into this over the years. Very little is known about his character and personal life but it is said that he is ruthless in his dealings, and quiet in person. He has at least two wives and is known to distance himself from all except very few trusted individuals. Paranoia dictates his behaviour and routine but the organisation around him has evolved without much direction from him, thereby leaving him as a useful figurehead without the danger of operational duties.

In summary, once you remove all the mystique and grandeur the ‘caliph’ turns out to be a rather ordinary man who saw his opportunity and took it. He is no different from the hundreds of other Iraqis who attempted to destroy the new Iraq and could have ended up as either violent criminal or faceless terrorist but instead now finds himself at the centre of the world’s attention. And both he and those around him will ensure it stays that way.

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Thoughts on the Federal/KRG deal

In response to questions of how significant the deal is and whether this is the end of confrontation between Baghdad and Erbil:

The deal itself is especially significant because of the timing. The PM promised when forming the new government that he would resolve the dispute with the KRG within 3 months and he has managed that. The Baghdad-KRG dispute has been going on for a number of years but with the threat the whole country is facing it was essential that a deal was struck in order to reduce financial pressures and also present a united political and military front against daesh. Abadi has shown that his government can get things done and the Kurds have shown that they are willing to compromise in order to continue as part of the Federal Iraq.

This is not the end of the confrontation because there are several outstanding issues between the federal and regional government, and even the oil export deal has some details to be confirmed. This does reduce tensions and also is the most significant issue that could have been resolved at this time, so it has set the right tone for further engagement to resolve other disagreements. Both sides have gained and both sides are more optimistic going forward, so a significant step but not the final one.

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