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What Are the Russians Doing in Iraq Now?

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US Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded last week an important visit to Iraq. While the confusion in Baghdad to grant Dunford’s C-17 aircraft a permission to land still remains unexplained, the General did not waste time to get to work. His first mission, as said in Baghdad, was to explain to Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi that allowing the Russians to fly over Iraq’s war zones will complicate the US security mission in Iraq and may result in reducing or cancelling it.

Just before the General travelled to Baghdad and Erbil, US officials were keeping telephone lines busy with Prime Minister Haider Abadi and his top aides. Dunford said October 1st that he believes that reports that the Iraqi government wanted Russians to conduct airstrikes in Iraq “are no longer in play”. Yet, it is not believed, even in Baghdad, that the Russians were or are ready to conduct any substantial air missions there. The whole cloud of rumors about an imminent role for Russia’s air force there was merely a reflection of the political atmosphere and a tool in the political fight in Iraq.

Sources in the Security Committee in Iraq’s Parliament leaked that Russia is already flying aircrafts “intensively” in all strategic areas and that the “Security Quartet” (Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria) operation room is “very active”. “We could not have cleaned Biji of ISIL without the help of the new intelligence center which includes the Russians”, a member in the Committee said.

The head of the committee Hakem Al Zamli more or less confirmed the leak. “Without the Russian help, the battle of Biji would have been longer and harder. The battle of Mosul is our next step”, he said. But Zamli admitted that Moscow’s help was not in the form of air raids.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Russians played any operational role in Biji or anywhere else in Iraq. The assessment of the “operation room” by professional military officers is that it “did not make a real difference yet”. The information the Russians have from Iraq is relevant mainly to their fight in Syria

But other reports indicate that the battle of Biji is not fully over. When asked to precise if Biji is totally “clean”, the spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) Ahmed Al Assadi was reluctant to give such a confirmation. “I can say that 90% of Biji is clear of ISIL”.

The dynamics in Iraq in relation to Russia’s role could be summarized by the Arabic popular proverb “Your enemy wishes you make a mistake. But your friend forgives any”. In other words, the PMF explains every progress that happens now as a result of the Russian role while they confirm that all past defeats were due to the US. Even American air raids on Biji are hailed as Russian.

Yet, it is remarkable to note that Baghdad is full of speculations nowadays about a “US-Russian” division of labor in Iraq. An Iraqi commentator, Hesham Al Hashemi, said that this division of labor is almost “an open secret”. “The US does not see it proper to coordinate with PMF so long as they are not part of the government security forces. Therefore, the Americans chose the front of Ramadi and they left Biji to the Russians and the PMF”. That implies that the PMF units will not participate in the battle of Ramadi.

The PMF, a sectarian force with some thin Sunni masks, witnessed a growing hostility among its ranks toward the US. When US forces refused sectarian atrocities committed against Sunnis in prior battles, PMF commanders accused the US of taking sides. When the US insisted that this ragtag army of zealots raising blunt sectarian banners be excluded from the battles in Anbar, the PMF accused the Americans of supporting ISIL.

But the PMF found in the Russian involvement a much needed political breathing space. As this involvement was coordinated with Tehran, and as the Russians do not care much about sectarian sensitivities in Iraq or even the future of Anbar so far as it is squarely put under the control of Shia forces and Baghdad’s government, so they were declared the friends who would be forgiven for any mistakes.

No Russian airstrikes were conducted in Biji. Yet, the advance of the PMF there is attributed squarely to Mr. Putin. Substantial air raids were conducted against ISIL by US air force. Yet, the Americans are openly accused of helping the terrorist group.

This ridiculous characterization of the US role by pro-Iran Shia forces in Iraq is balanced by ridiculous characterization of the Russian role by some Sunni politicians. One of those politicians told us that Russia is in Iraq to “abort the US fight against ISIL”. “You must understand! ISIL is a gift from up there to the Iranians. They want it to grow. It gives them the opportunity to mobilize the Shias around sectarian views and splits Iraq. When Tehran felt that the Americans are serious to fight ISIL in Anbar, they asked the Russians to come to slow that”.

The US made its dismay public after the announcement of the new Security Quartet in Iraq. The speculation in Baghdad now points inaccurately to a nearing decision to allow the Russians to start their own air raids against ISIL. It is merely a part of the ongoing psychological political war in Baghdad.

The situation in Iraq is clear however. Russia provided the pro-Iran Shia forces with tremendous psychological boost. The down side of this dynamic will appear at a later point when Russia shows inability to wage any sustainable campaign when PMF comes under extreme pressure in any of the future battles.

Abadi told General Dunford that Iraq did not invite the Russians to wage an air campaign in Iraq. But the Prime Minister is not the only decider in Baghdad. In certain issues, he may even be the last. The Russians may find themselves under pressure to increase their involvement. The Shia forces may indeed confront dire situations in the battle fields. And things may change.

Meanwhile, the Russian role, actual or imaginary, is a good card to try pressure the US as well. But the US can tell Abadi “Good luck. We will focus on arming the Kurds to fight ISIL and see how far the Russians can go in Iraq if they add it to Syria in their operational board.

The truth is that the Russians are doing very little in Iraq today. Their activities there is mainly linked to Syria. The psychological impact of their presence there is just that-psychological. That is not to underestimate it, but it is to say that it will be short-lived. It will only be important in as much as it encourages pro-Iran Shia forces, in their current euphoria, to make more stupid mistakes.