The Speaker of Iraq’s Parliament Selim Al Jabouri heard some very encouraging commitment in Washington during his visit during the second week of June. Jabouri is emerging slowly as a moderate Iraqi Sunni leader, well connected to the Anbar tribes, and genuinely anti-ISIL. Officials close to Jabouri expressed confidence that the Obama administration seems to be committed to training and equipping a considerable number of tribesmen in Habbaniyah Air Base without delay.
However, just upon his return to Baghdad, voices close to former PM Nouri Al Maliki started attacking Jabouri, who, they claim, “inflames sectarian confrontation”. A Parliamentarian of the block of Maliki said that arming the tribes will threaten the unity of Iraq. “The tribes already joined the Popular Hashd (Shia led volunteer force called “the Popular Mobilization”). Hashd is nationally and internationally legitimate and should be the only force to fight ISIL. How would we know that the tribes will not use the American arms to wage sectarian war?” she said.
These claims were criticized by Sunni politicians. One of them opined that “the only definition of Iraq in the views of sectarian Shia forces is “united by force under the control of Hadi Al Emery”. Al Emery is the leader of Badr militias, one of the most fanatic and sectarian Shia groups in Iraq and the right arm of Al Quds IRGC Chief Qassem Sullimani in Iraq.
But while PM Haider Al Abadi is trying desperately, with limited success so far, to control the tide of sectarianism, developments around him indicate that things are going in the opposite direction.
One example is the recent sweeping changes in the Ministry of Interior. Thirty five senior officers in the Ministry were sacked and replaced by loyalists of Hadi Al Emery. These changes will lead to placing the Ministry squarely under the control of Sullimani, who already controls the rising force of the Hashd.
Even Shia leaders known of their understanding of the bigger picture in Iraq and the dangers facing the country like Amar Al Hakim or Muqtada Al Sadr saw in the changes in the ministry of interior a danger to the delicate situation in Iraq. Yet, Sullimani seems dead locked on conquering Central Iraq and placing all its major urban centers under the control of his Iraqi proxies. To do that, he needs the Hashd, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense. As it is difficult at present to control the Ministry of Defense, Sullimani is moving to get as much political control over Baghdad as he can manage to get.
The concerns of the Shia leaders were not due to the changes in the Ministry of Interior alone. These changes were followed by another bold move in the South. In the last few weeks, Emery was trying to force the governor of Basra to resign. The push to get rid of the governor Majed Al Nasrawi was seen by some Shia political groups as an attack by Emery on other Shia forces. Al Nasrawi belongs to the Supreme Islamic Council of Al Hakim. Both Hakim and Sadr are part of National Coalition which is constituted of a group of Shia blocks including the Badr Organization of Emery. Yet, Emery decided that Nasrawi is not “cooperative” enough and decided to mobilize Basra “streets” to get rid of him. Demonstrations soon was seen in the streets of Basra demanding the resignation of Nasrawi. Only behind the scene contacts between Hakim and Badr leaders convinced Emery to change the “popular” demand from ousting the governor to questioning him on alleged accusations made by Badr activists.
Another example shows signs of inter-Shia strains. The camp of Sadr and Hakim agrees that the legislation related to forming a National Guard, even in Sunni areas, has become an urgent need to preserve the unity of Iraq. Furthermore, they oppose turning the Hashd into a political force. They want it fully subordinated to the national army.
This position puts Abadi, Hakim and Sadr in one camp inside the Shia block. The other camp includes Emery, Al Maliki and Sullimani, of course. The two camps have different views on how to deal with the crisis in Iraq. The Fatwa of Sistani, which led to the formation of the Hashd forces, attracted many Shias. Among the volunteers were some of the worst zealous mobs, the exact thing that Sullimani needs as material to work with.
It is feared that Sullimani is indeed becoming the “shadow Prime Minister” of Iraq. The presence of Hashd and control over the Ministry of Interior should have been important landmarks on the road of Sullimani to achieve his goal of subjugating Central Iraq and adding it to gained Iranian territories in the Middle East.
This quest for control over all of Arab Iraq, Shia and Sunni, is driving the current preparation by the forces of Hashd, the Shia militias, to attack Fallujah. After adding some Arab tribal elements to its ranks, Hashd forces claim that they ceased to be a sectarian force, hence should be considered a “national” force. Arab tribes look at both, ISIL and Hashd, as enemies. But if faced with the Shia militias, they will go to ISIL. This why Sullimani understands that only Shia forces, defined as such, should control that region.
Al Emery said bluntly that his, or in other words Sullimani’s, next step is Fallujah. He promised to “fight the Americans if they try to stop us from liberating our country. Iraq will be liberated only by Iraqis”. He opposes at the same time arming the “Iraqi” Arab tribes or giving them the job of fighting ISIL. However, the only effective way to defeat ISIL is through arming the indigenous population to fight the terrorist organization and giving them a stake in their own country.
If Fallujah and Tikrit remains under the control of Hashd for a longer time, it will be difficult to reach the point the US and Iraqi Sunnis want to reach, which is to give Central Iraq the elements that increase its immunity to ISIL or whatever will follow ISIL. Hashd cannot challenge the Kurds in their region. Realizing that the goal is to prevent the Sunnis from establishing their own “Peshmerga” in Central Iraq, Sullimani is trying to control some of its major population centers early on. His plan will complicate the course of events in the near future. If he “conquers” Fallujah, though it will be an extremely difficult job, after Tikrit, there will be no way to get Hashd out of there latter short of using force, which implies a continuation of the confrontations.
While Al Maliki is counting on the increasing tide of sectarianism, and the steady growth of the strength of Hashd politically and militarily, to potentially regain his political power, he pointed at other moderate Shia politicians as “influenced by the Ba’athists and ISIL”. He did not mention Sadr or Hakim but there is little doubt that both were in his mind.
This evolving dynamics in Baghdad carry opportunities to preserve the unity of Iraq as it carries the risk of a gradual marginalization of the moderate Shia politicians if Al Emery and Sullimani succeed in turning the battle of Anbar into a political battle as well. The move to totally control the Ministry of Interior and the rise of sectarian fever with the approach of the battle of Fallujah may allow Sullimani to expand, even further, his control over the Iraqi capital.