19 April 2018
English Arabic

A new report adds to warnings that Iraq's government is creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country's society

BAGHDAD — In December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “complete” victory over ISIL militants after Iraqi forces backed by American advisers and air power clawed back major cities occupied by the extremists for years.

Abadi’s proclamation ushered in a period of euphoria over the end of major combat, with many Iraqis embracing a message of hope, reconciliation and recovery. But five months later, the ugly impact of ISIL’s corrosion of the social fabric of a divided society is beginning to show.

An untold number of women and children are being held against their will in camps, accused of ties to the militant group without any semblance of due process. The women are being subjected to sexual assault by camp guards and staff and are being denied many of the basic needs for survival, according to a new report by Amnesty International released on Tuesday.

The report adds to the drumbeat of warnings that Iraq’s government is effectively creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country’s society and shattering any hope of a national healing that would help eliminate the conditions that allow insurgencies to thrive.

“Cast out of their communities, these families have nowhere and no one to turn to,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International. “They are trapped in camps, ostracized and denied food, water and other essentials. This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence. It is no way to build the just and sustainable peace that Iraqis so desperately desire and need.”

The report cites interviews with 92 women interviewed in eight internally displaced people camps in Iraq’s Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces — many of whom escaped the intense fighting that raged for nine months during the battle to evict ISIL from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Fingered as either ISIL sympathizers, or for having a male family member join the group, the women have languished with their children in the camps and have been subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation for their perceived affiliation with the militants, according to the report.

Amnesty researchers discovered the women are routinely denied food and health care and identity cards that would allow them to work or move freely around the country. Many have nowhere to turn for help, having been shunned by their neighbours in their home cities for their alleged ISIL ties.

Some have been forced to trade sex for basic goods inside the camps while others are at an extreme risk of rape, the report said.

A woman identified only as “Dana,” 20-years-old, told Amnesty she had survived several rape attempts and was being pressured into a sexual relationship with a member of the Iraqi security services assigned to the camp where she lives.

“Because they consider me the same as an ISIL fighter, they will rape me and return me back. They want to show everyone what they can do to me — to take away my honour,” she said. “I can’t feel comfortable in my tent. I just want a door to lock and walls around me … Each night, I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die.’”

Amnesty does not offer a number of how many such women face such horrific conditions but the sheer number of displaced people in the country suggests the problem may be widespread.

According to a January report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 2.9 million Iraqis remain displaced. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration has put that figure closer to 2.5 million.

Iraq’s government has struggled to address accusations of widespread abuses by security forces during the fight against ISIL. The charges have ranged from the forced disappearances of fighting aged Sunni men in areas once occupied by ISIL to summary executions of people with tenuous ties to the group in the battlefield.

Thousands of people arrested and charged with joining ISIL, including foreigners, are being subjected to flawed trials that are leading to executions and life sentences after hearings that last less than 20 minutes.

Abadi, who is currently running for a second term as prime minister, has won some praise for his consistent message of inclusiveness and reconciliation but his government has shown few signals of reining in the continued isolation of families who have been tarred with the ISIL label.

Amnesty said Iraq’s government has not responded to its latest report.

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Source: National Post

Women and children believed to have links to the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group suffer “harrowing” sexual exploitation and discrimination in Iraq’s refugee camps, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

More than 2 million were displaced from their homes after “IS” militants swept through Iraq in 2014.

What did Amnesty find?

  • Women were being coerced and pressured into entering sexual relationships in exchange for cash, humanitarian aid and protection from other men.
  • The women also faced the risk of rape, with at least four women telling Amnesty that they had either witnessed rape or heard the screams of victims.
  • Female-led households are abused, mistreated and deprived of food and health care.

Foundation for future violence’

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s head of Middle East research wrote: “Women and children with perceived ties to IS are being punished for crimes they did not commit …This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence.”

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Karl Schembri, Middle East regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “After what they’ve gone through, their vulnerability makes them victims of human exploitation once again.”

Funding shortfalls: The collective punishment being meted out to displaced women and children by security personnel and others is likely to further delay the return of peace in the war-torn country, which is already grappling with a shortage of the funds needed for initial reconstruction.

‘The Condemned’: The London-based rights group’s latest report is based on 92 interviews with women in eight camps for displaced Iraqis in the provinces of Nineveh and Salaheddin, north of Baghdad. The report is titled: “The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq.”

‘IS’ ousted: Iraq declared victory over the jihadis late last year after a grueling three-year campaign against “IS,” which had captured large swathes of territory in the country. The battle displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and devastated several towns and cities.

Source: Egypt Indepedent

Iraq will not solve the crises it faces unless it maintains an inclusive political process, overcomes sectarian divisions and rids itself of foreign interference, the Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi told The National during a visit to Dubai.

On the 12th of May Iraqis will cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections since the country's victory over ISIL. However, the state is still being hindered by issues that are debilitating its democratic process and political independence.

Mr Allawi explained that foreign intrusions in Iraq are obstructing efforts to bridge the sectarian divide and stressed that the country’s political process must be based on a common national identity.

“We don’t want an election based on sectarianism. We want an inclusive political process," he said. "However, the environment in Iraq is very sectarian, rigid and intimidating, with armed militias on the rise and the disenfranchisement of people continues.”

For years Iraq has been caught up in the region's sectarian divisions. But tensions were further exacerbated when Tehran leveraged its ties with Iraq's Shia majority and emerged as the country's major foreign power broker.

Mr Allawi says he advised the Iranian ambassador in Iraq that he shouldn’t encourage his government to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. “We know that there are senior Iranians based in Iraq that have an internal influence. This is not healthy, I speak to most leaders of the Shiite and Sunni blocs, they don’t want to see any foreign government getting involved.”

In addition to external meddling, Mr Allawi cites problematic institutions, poverty, security and terrorism as key factors behind Iraq's political failure. "There needs to be a rectified process that is not based on decisions taken in Tehran or Washington or anywhere else,” he said.

In the 2010 elections, Mr Allawi won more seats than Nouri Al Maliki - his fiercest competitor and close ally of Iran - but fell short of a majority. He accuses Iran of blocking his bid to become prime minister.

However, added the 73-year-old vice president, he doesn’t “harbour any animosity towards Iran or the neighbouring states” but instead urges the international community to “let Iraqis choose their leaders and representatives.”

Tehran denies any interference in Iraqi politics and says it has only provided military assistance to Shiite paramilitary groups in their fight against ISIL.

But with ISIL defeated , the future role of the militias presents a challenge for the central government, as many Iraqis voice concern over the participation of pro-Iranian movements in the elections.

Mr Allawi pointed out that the militias, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, present two troubling elements.

One, he explains, is that "they have become a legal entity in the state and the other is the unknown - what they are doing, and the fact that they are intimidating and harassing people.”

Source: The National

Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi launched an electoral campaign focusing on countering corruption, dubbing it “the call of the homeland.”

“Some of those who assumed responsibility after 2003 did not carry the project of building a state,” Allawi said in a televised speech on Sunday evening.

Allawi, one of the three Vice-Presidents of the Republic, added that “some took advantage of their influence and international relations to overrun real voices of the people expressed in the 2010 elections.”

He pointed out that “abhorrent quotas and power sharing according to different and narrow loyalties caused tragedies, public displacement, security setbacks and corruption.”

On the purpose of this campaign, Allawi said it aimed to “save Iraq and its people from humiliation,” adding that his bloc believed in “the ability of young people to change reality.”

“Our project and the youth project will revolve around achieving realistic reform.”

The leader of the National Coalition warned against distorting the will of Iraqi voters, manipulating votes and bringing in debts. “We will not stand idly by anymore,” Allawi warned.

Conversely, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Dr. Salim al-Jabouri acknowledged on Saturday the inability of the current political class to combat corruption.

Jubouri said Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption, calling for a million people demonstration on Election Day for change.

Speaking during an Islamic conference in Baghdad on Saturday, Jabouri said that “the will for change cannot be achieved through resentment, but requires a revolutionary electoral change,” pointing out that “Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption.”

More so, member of the parliament's financial transparency commission Rahim al-Darraji slammed the current political class for corruption.

Commenting on the announcement by the speaker of the parliament about the inability of the political class to fight corruption, Darraji told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the current Iraqi political class failed to achieve anything useful for the country,” noting that “failure was evident in everything and not only in counter-corruption efforts.”

He said it also failed in the ability to build state institutions.

Darraji stressed that “the Iraqi public must not reelect this political class and that it should come up with new faces rather than masking old faces.”

“Current politicians have proven themselves to be crisis riding and sectarian men, not statesmen,” concluded Darraji.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

On the 15th anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by US forces, Iraq is reaching another critical moment in its troubled history. The outcome of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12 could end the more positive trajectory under the current leadership and inaugurate yet another troublesome chapter. Possibly, perhaps even most likely, these elections will institutionalize Lebanon’s Hezbollah model (in the most negative of senses) in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system since the US invasion already replicates Lebanon’s. After one-and-a-half decades of civil war in Lebanon, the Taif Agreement of 1989 set the stage for the end of the conflict and reformed the power-sharing system between the country’s main religious communities. In retrospect, Taif contributed to Lebanon’s political dysfunctionality: Syria, designated Lebanon’s post-war power-broker, mostly exacerbated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites; the agreement required Lebanese militias to disarm but it exempted Hezbollah, a critical step for Tehran’s ally to impose the militia as a state above the state; and it did not achieve its goal of gradually eliminating political confessionalism.
As with Lebanon, Iraq’s political system is equally dysfunctional and prone to deadlocks, paralysis and behind the stage machinations. Iraq’s constitution of 2005 does not explicitly allocate key political posts on a sectarian basis, but the positions of president, prime minister and speaker of parliament are effectively reserved for Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis respectively. Iran today plays a role in Iraq that is as influential and intrusive as the one Syria played in Lebanon even after withdrawal following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 
The fight against Daesh — a terrorist insurgency that the outright sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, backed by Iran, helped create — provided a further opportunity for Iran to expand its political and strategic leverage. The Popular Mobilization Units, formed in 2014 in response to a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to confront Daesh, became a double-edged sword: A formidable fighting force that helped push back Daesh when the Iraqi army was nowhere to be seen, but also a predominantly Shiite armed movement parallel to and often in competition with the state. Various of these militias, which taken together are given the umbrella name of PMUs, have close operational and even ideological ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and are outright loyal to Tehran. 
As anticipated, after substantive progress in the fight against Daesh last summer, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi approved in early March a decree that formalized the inclusion of the PMU into Iraq’s security forces. But it is clear this process will not be all-encompassing. Some of these militias have heeded the call for disarmament and integration, while others have made no secret of their intention to remain outside the scope of Iraqi state control or supervision. 

Last year, in a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called on his fighters to return all weapons provided by the government and hand over territory to Iraq’s regular security forces. Yet the spokesman of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the militias with close ties to the IRGC, has rejected any possible integration into Iraq’s security forces while welcoming the salaries and other benefits guaranteed by March’s decree. The Iraqi state is now paying for armed groups that are loyal to a foreign government. In various cases, they have even fought in Syria to protect the murderous Assad regime alongside Iranian forces, Hezbollah and a whole array of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran.
The very short-lived electoral alliance between Abadi and the leaders of some hard-line militias attests to the growing political clout of these groups. Even more so when considering Abadi has proved his independence time and again, has voiced his opposition to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs and has pursued a national reconstruction and reconciliation project. 
However, the rapid unravelling of the alliance following a widespread outcry from Iraqis of all stripes also shows that Iraqi nationalism is alive and well. 
The May elections are expected to provide a ticket to parliament for a substantial number of PMU leaders. If confirmed, the expansion of the Hezbollah model with both political and military wings will become an inescapable reality in Iraq.
In any scenario, the Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran will hardly be able to control Iraq with the same tight grip with which Hezbollah rules over Lebanon. Not only is Iraqi territory over 40 times the size of Lebanon’s, but there are other powerful armed groups across the spectrum willing and able to defend their corner. Rising tensions between these groups and Sunnis and Kurds, as well as with Iraq’s neighbors who are nervous about their presence, are guaranteed. A backlash from Iraqi Shiites, from secularists to nationalists, is also likely.
Still, the institutionalization of the Hezbollah model in Iraq is a worrisome development. The new political leverage of elected PMU leaders can be used to derail attempts to rein in the militias, push the Iraqi state to fund them and advance Tehran’s agenda. This will represent a substantial obstacle for the national reconciliation efforts of the coming government and will further undermine the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.

Source: Arab News

Iran's influence is looming large as Iraqis prepare to head to the polls for parliamentary elections in May, with many in the country worried that Tehran may be looking to strengthen its political grip on Baghdad through the ballot box.

Iranian support and military advisers helped Baghdad's Shiite-led government beat back the Islamic State group. But with IS militants now largely defeated militarily, Iran's expanding influence has emerged as one of Iraq's most divisive issues ahead of the balloting.

That influence has sown fear among Iraq's disenchanted minority Sunnis, who bore the brunt of the war's destruction, and has also caused concern in Washington. Despite tensions between the United States and Iran, both remain key allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month accused Iran of "mucking around" in Iraq's upcoming elections, telling reporters the U.S. has what he called "worrisome evidence" that Iran is funneling "not an insignificant amount of money" into Iraq to try to sway votes. Baghdad rejected the accusation.

Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi stressed that the use of foreign money in domestic politics "is illegal and unconstitutional."

"The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results," he said.

Both Iran and Iraq are Shiite-majority counties and share deep economic and cultural ties — as well as a 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) border.

The two countries fought a devastating war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead. But Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, marking the start of a prolonged period of sectarian division, extremist violence and political strife.

Under Saddam, many of Iraq's Shiite political elite spent years in exile in Iran. Since Saddam's ouster, Iraqi markets have been stocked with Iranian goods and millions of Iranian pilgrims descend on Iraq each year to visit holy shrines in the cities of Samarra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

When entire divisions of Iraq's military disintegrated following the fall of the city of Mosul to IS in the summer of 2014, Iranian influence soared.

Weeks before the U.S. began a bombing campaign against IS, Iranian advisers and support for Iraqi Shiite militias, which became known as Popular Mobilization Units, helped halt IS' advance, which came dangerously close to Baghdad. From then on, the militias became instrumental in the battle against IS.

More than 500 members of the paramilitary forces or political figures associated with the militias are now running for parliament.

Ahmed al-Asadi is one of the candidates with strong paramilitary ties. An elected member of parliament from Baghdad and former spokesman for the PMU, al-Asadi cut his ties with the force before launching his re-election bid — a formality required by a governing body overseeing the May vote.

"Iran is the ally of the powerful forces that supported Iraq against terrorism," he said, dismissing concerns that Tehran plays a destabilizing role in Iraq.

But other Iraqi politicians worry that if a large number of men like al-Asadi win seats in parliament, Iraq will be even more beholden to its eastern neighbor.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a longtime Iraqi politician and former deputy prime minister, said he expects candidates with ties to the Shiite militias to do well in upcoming elections.

"These elections will be disastrous for this country," he said. "The PMU will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister."

Iran is not the only one trying to influence the May vote, said Joost Hiltermann, a longtime Iraq researcher with the International Crisis Group.

"Everybody is trying to buy or gain influence, anybody who has a stake in Iraq that is, whether they do it with money or intimidation or other kinds of incentives," he said. "Ever since there have been elections in 2005, there's been meddling."

The future of American forces in Iraq hinges in large part on who becomes Iraq's next prime minister and who gets to lead the country's most powerful ministries.

While the Shiite militias racked up several early victories against IS, it was U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that allowed Iraqi forces to retake urban areas. Iraq remains deeply dependent on U.S. military aid, training and intelligence sharing.

While al-Abadi, who is seeking re-election with his recently formed Victory Alliance party, has said he is open to long-term American training programs for Iraqi forces, some of his opponents have taken a much harder line, describing any U.S. forces in Iraq as occupiers.

The U.S. still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, supporting its fight against remaining pockets of IS, most significantly along Iraq's volatile border with Syria, in western Anbar province and around the city of Kirkuk — areas that have seen an uptick in militant activity.

"I'm not going to speculate on anything that could or would happen," coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said when asked if there is concern that a change in government could affect the U.S.-led coalition's presence in Iraq.

"We are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq to support their operation to defeat Daesh, and we'll continue to do so as long as we are invited," he said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

Source: ABC News

In 2003, as U.S. forces entered Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr was a young Shiite Muslim cleric, little known to the American troops who toppled Saddam Hussein and ushered in a tumultuous new Iraq.

As liberation turned into occupation, Sadr, the son of a revered grand ayatollah killed for opposing Saddam, compiled a militia that presented such a serious challenge to American forces, the U.S. vowed to kill or capture him.

A couple of years later, his Mahdi Army was embroiled in Iraq's bitter sectarian war.

That was the old Muqtada al-Sadr — responding to the needs of the times, his loyalists say. Fifteen years later, Sadr, now 44, has taken another dramatic turn — reaching out to powerful Sunni Muslim countries, distancing himself from Iran and effectively burning down his own political movement.

Now, preparing for elections in May, the Shiite cleric venerated by millions of religious followers is forming a brand-new alliance with Communists and secularists.

"We have to face it," says Dhia al-Asadi, head of the Ahrar bloc, the Sadr movement's political wing. "What destroyed our country ... is groups or parties allied along sectarian or ethnic lines."

Sadr, while holding no official position in government or politics, remains one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, able to bring hundreds of thousands of followers into the streets through his family's religious legacy.

His political evolution could have far-reaching consequences for the next Iraqi government, the country's fractured Shiite political class and Iraq's relationship with neighboring Iran.

In Iraq, the new alliance asks Sadr's followers to take a major leap of faith in abandoning religion as a basis for voting.

Since the country's first postwar parliamentary elections in 2005, Iraqis have mostly voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. And Sadr owes his huge following largely to his family's religious legacy.

"Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr believes it is not the role of any politician to spread Islam or religious teachings," says Asadi, an urbane, Iraq- and U.K.-educated academic. "This is maybe seen by some as a departure from the religious ideas" of the cleric's father and father-in-law, he says.

Asadi terms it a gradual transformation.

In Sadr City, on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash-strewn streets and open sewers testify to government neglect, despite the election of more than 30 Sadr movement members to parliament and several cabinet posts.

Before 2003, the sprawling, working-class neighborhood of Sadr followers was known as Saddam City. Protests — quickly crushed by Saddam's government — erupted here when Sadr's father was killed in 1999.

As in the rest of Iraq, disillusionment with Iraqi politics runs deep.

"I'd rather vote for a Sunni," says Sabrin Hashem, a young housewife shopping on a street with posters of Sadr's father and father-in-law. "It's been how long? Fifteen years? We haven't seen anything from a Shiite government," says Hashem, dressed in the enveloping black cloak that most women here wear outside the home.

The Sadr name commands a following based on both religion and pragmatism. The cleric's late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, is credited with reviving messianic sentiment among Iraqi Shiites. Followers believe the Prophet Muhammad's 12th successor disappeared in the Iraqi city of Samarra more than 1,000 years ago and will return to herald judgment day.

The younger Sadr also inherited a legacy of social activism and services for the Shiite poor and dispossessed — a legacy jeopardized in recent years by corrupt members of his own political faction.

In response to the corruption, Sadr ordered a sweeping purge and banned all his current members of parliament from running in May's election. He said he wanted to inject "new blood" into the process.

"People are saying this is not going to work," Asadi says of the alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, made up traditionally of atheists. But Asadi doesn't agree: "I think this is going to succeed because they share the same principles, to a certain extent. They come from the same social classes, they fight for the same values and they share the same history of oppression and suppression by different regimes."

The alliance puts Sadr further at odds with Iraq's powerful neighbor.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister who is a top aide to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently visited Baghdad, warning Iraqi officials it would be unacceptable for Communists to be in government.

In contrast with the Iranian-backed militias that were assembled to fight ISIS when the Iraqi army collapsed four years ago, Sadr increasingly portrays himself as an Iraqi nationalist.

He has reached out to Saudi Arabia — which is gradually warming up to Iraq after a decade of hostility to the country's Shiite-led government — to try to lessen Iraq's isolation in the Arab Gulf countries.

"That's why Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia [last summer] — to tell them that the Shiite of Iraq are not going to be an extension of the Iranian revolution," says Asadi. "His visit was to ask them to be more present in Iraq," he adds, referring to a greater diplomatic and economic investment in the country.

Iran is not happy with the cleric, Asadi acknowledges, but he says Sadr's role in opposing U.S. intervention in the region — the same stance as Iran — prevents Tehran from opposing him outright.

Sadr has taken the same stance against Turkey and Russia, Asadi says — warning them not to intervene in Iraq. Implicitly, in demanding that all foreign forces leave, he has also called for the removal of Iranian fighters.

His opposition to Iranian influence puts Sadr in rare agreement with the United States.

"He's become an Iraqi nationalist as opposed to an Iraqi Shiite Islamist," says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador who served in Iraq as deputy chief of mission. "I don't think it's American policy to try to dominate Iraq. We simply would like it to be sovereign and independent rather than a vassal state of Iran next door so if Sadr can promote that, it's in line with American policy objectives."

In 2004, with U.S. occupation authorities in charge of Iraq, Sadr formed a militia to fight American forces, stepping into the security breach created when the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army. Sadr named it the Mahdi Army, evoking the 12th imam, whose promised reemergence would herald salvation.

He sent militia members to Fallujah to fight alongside Sunni fighters battling U.S. forces there. The U.S. military, acting on an Iraqi arrest warrant, vowed to capture or kill him.

In the sectarian war that followed, Mahdi Army leaders were accused of running death squads in Sunni areas. Sadr officials point out the cleric was in Iran for much of that time, and now say those fighters were not under his control.

Sadr eventually agreed to a cease-fire in his battle against U.S. forces and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops. He returned from Iran after American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and replaced his militia with a social services organization.

He reactivated the fighters in 2014 — creating the "Peace Brigades" to protect Samarra against ISIS. The same paramilitary force shot and killed a top security aide to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in March, when he failed to stop at one of their checkpoints.

"Even today, it's not clear that Muqtada al-Sadr has day-to-day tactical control over his militias," says Ford, now at Yale University and with the Middle East Institute. "I think the Iraqi government has a real problem with different militias, both Shiite and Kurdish and Sunni. How the Iraqi government tries step by step to assert more control over these troops will be a major factor in the development of Iraq over the next couple of years."

Source: NPR

OHA, Qatar — Global anxiety that the United States will take military action against Iran has increased now that President Trump has appointedJohn Bolton as his national security adviser. Mr. Bolton has long promoted regime change in Iran, argued for bombing Iran and a more assertive American policy against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

But the United States cannot effectively confront Tehran and its proxies until it appreciates Iran’s role in state building in Middle Eastern countries decimated by conflict.

Iran has increased its influence in the region since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. Iran mobilized tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and other Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. These militias played a critical role in defeating the Syrian rebel groups. They also fought against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, at times in close proximity to American forces.

Iraqi Shiite militias, battle-hardened from fighting the United States, began fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces in 2012. Hezbollah capturedthe strategic Syrian town of Qusair from opposition fighters in 2013. Shiite militias, including Afghan fighters, were pivotal in capturing Aleppo in December 2016, which arguably secured the survival of the Assad regime.

Over the past two years, these Iranian proxies led the fight to take back cities like Homs and areas around Damascus. They control strategically important checkpoints and support Syrian military positions across the countryside.

Hezbollah and Iraqi militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujabaa have emerged as Iran’s most powerful partners on the ground in Syria. They have decades of battlefield experience and Iran entrusted them with the training of the Shiite militias mobilized from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But these Iranian proxies do not just turn up for battle, fight and return home. Hezbollah’s political prominence and “state within a state” status in Lebanon was once the exception, but now it is a model that is being replicated by other militia groups with devastating impact.

Iran has trained these groups to exploit disorder and fill the vacuum by providing services and security to often desperate communities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees these proxies, has helped them co-opt or take over local humanitarian organizations andcharities as a way of acquiring legitimacy and popularity. Iran has ensured that aid is provided through these proxies.

And as in Iraq, Iran’s proxies in Syria have, in the areas they control, forced out populations that are not Shiite or do not support Iran. 

Control over state institutions in Syria has given Iranian proxies a significant say over the purchases of property, enabling them to further consolidate their positions. The eventual goal is to translate their gains into parliamentary seats, ministerial posts and formalized control over state institutions.

The transformation of wartime militias into prominent political actors is exemplified by the evolution of Shiite militias in Iraq into versions of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which gained notorietyfor sectarian atrocities and attacks on Western and Iraqi personnel, was established by Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Today it runs extensive social and religious activities, including medical centers and clinics, independently of the Iraqi government.

Iran’s proxies in Iraq dominate the Popular Mobilization Forces, a volunteer organization of 100,000 fighters established in 2014 after the Islamic State seized Mosul and the Iraqi military collapsed. Iranian pressure pushed the Shiite-dominated Iraqi state to legalize the force in 2016, providing it with substantial financial resources and heavy weaponry.

The Shiite proxies of Iran in Syria are motivated by the fear that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be an existential threat to the Shiite faith, a fear that Tehran encourages. Iran builds social and religious networks centered on the Shiite faith and support for Iran’s theocracy. Through technical support and sophisticated use of propaganda, Iran amplifies the voice of its proxies. Collectively, these allow Tehran to circumvent local and national authorities and ultimately shape governments, settle disputes and, consequently, decide policies.

It dismays local political actors but in countries devastated by war, Iran’s rivals are often too weak to counter its narrative and its networks on the ground.

Unlike the rotating cast of American officials and military leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, and his men have great autonomy and long engagement in the region. General Soleimani has run the Quds Force since1998 and, along with his deputies, has invested decades of time and energy into developing relations with armed groups and political parties of all stripes across the region.

For militias, the corps is a desirable patron or partner, with its record of enforcing red lines and standing by its allies. The United States has failed to even establish red lines, let alone enforce them when it comes to both its own interests and those of its allies on the ground, as Syrians, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Western-aligned Shiite factions in Iraq have found out.

Iran, meanwhile, will stick around to pick up the pieces and refashion countries and societies according to its own interests and ideology. As it did in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran will almost certainly transform its proxies in Syria into fully entrenched components of whatever political system emerges from the ruins of conflict. These Iranian allies will shape the future of the Syrian state and the political landscape of whole Middle East.

The United States can alter the course of events if it commits to staying in Syria, builds on the current deployment of American forces and nurtures long-term partnerships to ensure that the fate of Syria and the region is not left to Iran and its proxies.

 Source: The New York Times
 

Iraq’s crude oil reserves may turn out to be much higher than believed, the country’s oil minister Jabar al-Luaibi said at a recent industry event, timing the statement with news that it will pay foreign companies less in new contracts.

Last year, Iraq updated the estimate for its proven reserves to 153 billion barrels from 143 billion barrels, but if Luaibi is right, the figure could actually be double the 2017 estimate.

If the higher estimate proves true, it would make Iraq the largest oil-rich country in the world, ahead of Venezuela, which claims its reserves are just above 300 billion barrels, and also ahead of Saudi Arabia, with 260.8 billion barrels.

 

Al-Luaibi’s remarks on the reserve estimates come amid preparations for the next oil tender in the country, which is to take place next week and offer 11 exploration blocks to foreign companies.

A total 15 companies have expressed interest in bidding for the blocks in eastern and southern Iraq as the country seeks to increase its production capacity to over 5 million bpd from the current 4.35 million bpd.

But it also comes as Baghdad says it will exclude oil by-products from the revenue of foreign oil companies in new contracts that should be awarded in June. The end result will be reduced productive fees for foreign companies.

Related: Oil Majors Should Invest In Deepwater Drilling

The tender and the possible reserve update suggest Iraq does not plan to continue producing less than capacity for much longer.

This is hardly a surprise: OPEC’s number-two exporter has consistently failed to fit within its production quota under the OPEC+ agreement, forcing Saudi Arabia to reduce its production by more than it had agreed. In fact, were it not for Venezuela’s uncontrollably falling output, OPEC would not have been able to meet its objective of bringing global inventories down enough to stimulate higher prices.

Iraq has not made a secret of its production growth plans. The troubled country, which has yet to erase all traces of the Islamic State’s presence from its territory, depends on crude oil exports for 90 percent of its export revenue and does not have the means or options to initiate a quick economic turnaround.

Source: By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

Iraq has sentenced 3,130 prisoners to death for alleged links to ISIS and other militant organizations since 2013, as the nation’s criminal justice system struggles to deal with thousands of prisoners from its four-year fight against extremist groups.

Iraq has detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people accused of terror-related offenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of a 27,849-person spreadsheet of all those imprisoned in Iraq as of late January. The spreadsheet was provided by an Iraqi official on the condition of anonymity.

The real number of detained prisoners is likely to be even higher, as many prisoners are being held by police, military intelligence and Kurdish forces. Those sentenced to die include the sister of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and foreigners who traveled to join ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

Of those detained, 8,861 have been convicted of terror offenses since the start of 2013. AP quoted an Iraqi intelligence official who said it was likely that the vast majority of these were related to ISIS. Another 11,000 people are currently undergoing interrogation or are awaiting trial, another official said.

Human Rights Watch estimated a similar number of detainees and prisoners—20,000—in November 2017, and warned that overzealous use of anti-terror laws would throw those with minimal ISIS connections together with hardened fighters. “Based on all my meetings with senior government officials, I get the sense that no one—perhaps not even the prime minister himself—knows the full number of detainees,” said Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for an acceleration of executions for those convicted. Since 2014, 250 hangings have been carried out, of which 100 took place in 2017, marking a clear effort to fast-track cases. The U.N. has warned that such an approach increases the risk of “gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice.”

“Iraqi justice is failing to distinguish between the culpability of doctors who protected lives under ISIS rule and those responsible for crimes against humanity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Responding to an execution of 42 prisoners in September 2017, Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International said, “The Iraqi authorities have a deplorable track record when it comes to the use of the death penalty. In many cases previously people have been put to death after deeply unfair trials and in some cases after being tortured to ‘confess’.”

Saad al-Hadithi, a government spokesman, told AP, “The government is intent that every criminal and terrorist receive just punishment.”

As Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces fought ISIS back toward the Syrian border with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, they were left with thousands of prisoners. Iraqi authorities spared little time, or sympathy, for those that survived the journey back to Baghdad. Iraqi courts can take as little as 30 minutes to hand down death sentences for defendants.

As the U.S. found during its occupation of Iraq, holding so many terror suspects together at the same time can have unintended consequences. Several members of ISIS’s senior leadership met at the Bucca Prison in southern Iraq, where U.S. forces detained militants during the occupation. This gave prisoners a chance to network and spread their ideology. Al-Baghdadi spent almost five years in the camp.

An interior ministry officer overseeing the detention of IS suspects in the area around Mosul told AP that current prisoners have been seen circulating extremist religious teachings and seem to have contact with the outside world, despite the installation of cell phone jammers.

The majority of those being held, and hanged, are Sunni Muslims. The 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed sectarian tensions that had been held in check by Saddam Hussein’s iron fist. Shiite Muslims came to control the government of post-Saddam Iraq, and used their power to persecute Sunnis. This created deep resentment in Sunni communities and provided a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters as they swept the north of the country.

Indeed, when Mosul fell in 2014, some residents welcomed ISIS as liberators, though the group’s extremism and violence would soon alienate many. By imprisoning and executing thousands of Sunnis, some for only tenuous links to ISIS, the Iraqi government may be repeating the mistakes that allowed the group to flourish in the first place.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said he is confident that past errors would not be repeated. “The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty,” he said.

 Source: Newsweek

 

A new report adds to warnings that Iraq's government is creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country's society

BAGHDAD — In December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “complete” victory over ISIL militants after Iraqi forces backed by American advisers and air power clawed back major cities occupied by the extremists for years.

Abadi’s proclamation ushered in a period of euphoria over the end of major combat, with many Iraqis embracing a message of hope, reconciliation and recovery. But five months later, the ugly impact of ISIL’s corrosion of the social fabric of a divided society is beginning to show.

An untold number of women and children are being held against their will in camps, accused of ties to the militant group without any semblance of due process. The women are being subjected to sexual assault by camp guards and staff and are being denied many of the basic needs for survival, according to a new report by Amnesty International released on Tuesday.

The report adds to the drumbeat of warnings that Iraq’s government is effectively creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country’s society and shattering any hope of a national healing that would help eliminate the conditions that allow insurgencies to thrive.

“Cast out of their communities, these families have nowhere and no one to turn to,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International. “They are trapped in camps, ostracized and denied food, water and other essentials. This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence. It is no way to build the just and sustainable peace that Iraqis so desperately desire and need.”

The report cites interviews with 92 women interviewed in eight internally displaced people camps in Iraq’s Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces — many of whom escaped the intense fighting that raged for nine months during the battle to evict ISIL from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Fingered as either ISIL sympathizers, or for having a male family member join the group, the women have languished with their children in the camps and have been subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation for their perceived affiliation with the militants, according to the report.

Amnesty researchers discovered the women are routinely denied food and health care and identity cards that would allow them to work or move freely around the country. Many have nowhere to turn for help, having been shunned by their neighbours in their home cities for their alleged ISIL ties.

Some have been forced to trade sex for basic goods inside the camps while others are at an extreme risk of rape, the report said.

A woman identified only as “Dana,” 20-years-old, told Amnesty she had survived several rape attempts and was being pressured into a sexual relationship with a member of the Iraqi security services assigned to the camp where she lives.

“Because they consider me the same as an ISIL fighter, they will rape me and return me back. They want to show everyone what they can do to me — to take away my honour,” she said. “I can’t feel comfortable in my tent. I just want a door to lock and walls around me … Each night, I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die.’”

Amnesty does not offer a number of how many such women face such horrific conditions but the sheer number of displaced people in the country suggests the problem may be widespread.

According to a January report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 2.9 million Iraqis remain displaced. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration has put that figure closer to 2.5 million.

Iraq’s government has struggled to address accusations of widespread abuses by security forces during the fight against ISIL. The charges have ranged from the forced disappearances of fighting aged Sunni men in areas once occupied by ISIL to summary executions of people with tenuous ties to the group in the battlefield.

Thousands of people arrested and charged with joining ISIL, including foreigners, are being subjected to flawed trials that are leading to executions and life sentences after hearings that last less than 20 minutes.

Abadi, who is currently running for a second term as prime minister, has won some praise for his consistent message of inclusiveness and reconciliation but his government has shown few signals of reining in the continued isolation of families who have been tarred with the ISIL label.

Amnesty said Iraq’s government has not responded to its latest report.

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Source: National Post

Women and children believed to have links to the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group suffer “harrowing” sexual exploitation and discrimination in Iraq’s refugee camps, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

More than 2 million were displaced from their homes after “IS” militants swept through Iraq in 2014.

What did Amnesty find?

  • Women were being coerced and pressured into entering sexual relationships in exchange for cash, humanitarian aid and protection from other men.
  • The women also faced the risk of rape, with at least four women telling Amnesty that they had either witnessed rape or heard the screams of victims.
  • Female-led households are abused, mistreated and deprived of food and health care.

Foundation for future violence’

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s head of Middle East research wrote: “Women and children with perceived ties to IS are being punished for crimes they did not commit …This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence.”

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Karl Schembri, Middle East regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “After what they’ve gone through, their vulnerability makes them victims of human exploitation once again.”

Funding shortfalls: The collective punishment being meted out to displaced women and children by security personnel and others is likely to further delay the return of peace in the war-torn country, which is already grappling with a shortage of the funds needed for initial reconstruction.

‘The Condemned’: The London-based rights group’s latest report is based on 92 interviews with women in eight camps for displaced Iraqis in the provinces of Nineveh and Salaheddin, north of Baghdad. The report is titled: “The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq.”

‘IS’ ousted: Iraq declared victory over the jihadis late last year after a grueling three-year campaign against “IS,” which had captured large swathes of territory in the country. The battle displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and devastated several towns and cities.

Source: Egypt Indepedent

Iraq will not solve the crises it faces unless it maintains an inclusive political process, overcomes sectarian divisions and rids itself of foreign interference, the Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi told The National during a visit to Dubai.

On the 12th of May Iraqis will cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections since the country's victory over ISIL. However, the state is still being hindered by issues that are debilitating its democratic process and political independence.

Mr Allawi explained that foreign intrusions in Iraq are obstructing efforts to bridge the sectarian divide and stressed that the country’s political process must be based on a common national identity.

“We don’t want an election based on sectarianism. We want an inclusive political process," he said. "However, the environment in Iraq is very sectarian, rigid and intimidating, with armed militias on the rise and the disenfranchisement of people continues.”

For years Iraq has been caught up in the region's sectarian divisions. But tensions were further exacerbated when Tehran leveraged its ties with Iraq's Shia majority and emerged as the country's major foreign power broker.

Mr Allawi says he advised the Iranian ambassador in Iraq that he shouldn’t encourage his government to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. “We know that there are senior Iranians based in Iraq that have an internal influence. This is not healthy, I speak to most leaders of the Shiite and Sunni blocs, they don’t want to see any foreign government getting involved.”

In addition to external meddling, Mr Allawi cites problematic institutions, poverty, security and terrorism as key factors behind Iraq's political failure. "There needs to be a rectified process that is not based on decisions taken in Tehran or Washington or anywhere else,” he said.

In the 2010 elections, Mr Allawi won more seats than Nouri Al Maliki - his fiercest competitor and close ally of Iran - but fell short of a majority. He accuses Iran of blocking his bid to become prime minister.

However, added the 73-year-old vice president, he doesn’t “harbour any animosity towards Iran or the neighbouring states” but instead urges the international community to “let Iraqis choose their leaders and representatives.”

Tehran denies any interference in Iraqi politics and says it has only provided military assistance to Shiite paramilitary groups in their fight against ISIL.

But with ISIL defeated , the future role of the militias presents a challenge for the central government, as many Iraqis voice concern over the participation of pro-Iranian movements in the elections.

Mr Allawi pointed out that the militias, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, present two troubling elements.

One, he explains, is that "they have become a legal entity in the state and the other is the unknown - what they are doing, and the fact that they are intimidating and harassing people.”

Source: The National

Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi launched an electoral campaign focusing on countering corruption, dubbing it “the call of the homeland.”

“Some of those who assumed responsibility after 2003 did not carry the project of building a state,” Allawi said in a televised speech on Sunday evening.

Allawi, one of the three Vice-Presidents of the Republic, added that “some took advantage of their influence and international relations to overrun real voices of the people expressed in the 2010 elections.”

He pointed out that “abhorrent quotas and power sharing according to different and narrow loyalties caused tragedies, public displacement, security setbacks and corruption.”

On the purpose of this campaign, Allawi said it aimed to “save Iraq and its people from humiliation,” adding that his bloc believed in “the ability of young people to change reality.”

“Our project and the youth project will revolve around achieving realistic reform.”

The leader of the National Coalition warned against distorting the will of Iraqi voters, manipulating votes and bringing in debts. “We will not stand idly by anymore,” Allawi warned.

Conversely, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Dr. Salim al-Jabouri acknowledged on Saturday the inability of the current political class to combat corruption.

Jubouri said Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption, calling for a million people demonstration on Election Day for change.

Speaking during an Islamic conference in Baghdad on Saturday, Jabouri said that “the will for change cannot be achieved through resentment, but requires a revolutionary electoral change,” pointing out that “Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption.”

More so, member of the parliament's financial transparency commission Rahim al-Darraji slammed the current political class for corruption.

Commenting on the announcement by the speaker of the parliament about the inability of the political class to fight corruption, Darraji told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the current Iraqi political class failed to achieve anything useful for the country,” noting that “failure was evident in everything and not only in counter-corruption efforts.”

He said it also failed in the ability to build state institutions.

Darraji stressed that “the Iraqi public must not reelect this political class and that it should come up with new faces rather than masking old faces.”

“Current politicians have proven themselves to be crisis riding and sectarian men, not statesmen,” concluded Darraji.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

On the 15th anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by US forces, Iraq is reaching another critical moment in its troubled history. The outcome of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12 could end the more positive trajectory under the current leadership and inaugurate yet another troublesome chapter. Possibly, perhaps even most likely, these elections will institutionalize Lebanon’s Hezbollah model (in the most negative of senses) in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system since the US invasion already replicates Lebanon’s. After one-and-a-half decades of civil war in Lebanon, the Taif Agreement of 1989 set the stage for the end of the conflict and reformed the power-sharing system between the country’s main religious communities. In retrospect, Taif contributed to Lebanon’s political dysfunctionality: Syria, designated Lebanon’s post-war power-broker, mostly exacerbated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites; the agreement required Lebanese militias to disarm but it exempted Hezbollah, a critical step for Tehran’s ally to impose the militia as a state above the state; and it did not achieve its goal of gradually eliminating political confessionalism.
As with Lebanon, Iraq’s political system is equally dysfunctional and prone to deadlocks, paralysis and behind the stage machinations. Iraq’s constitution of 2005 does not explicitly allocate key political posts on a sectarian basis, but the positions of president, prime minister and speaker of parliament are effectively reserved for Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis respectively. Iran today plays a role in Iraq that is as influential and intrusive as the one Syria played in Lebanon even after withdrawal following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 
The fight against Daesh — a terrorist insurgency that the outright sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, backed by Iran, helped create — provided a further opportunity for Iran to expand its political and strategic leverage. The Popular Mobilization Units, formed in 2014 in response to a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to confront Daesh, became a double-edged sword: A formidable fighting force that helped push back Daesh when the Iraqi army was nowhere to be seen, but also a predominantly Shiite armed movement parallel to and often in competition with the state. Various of these militias, which taken together are given the umbrella name of PMUs, have close operational and even ideological ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and are outright loyal to Tehran. 
As anticipated, after substantive progress in the fight against Daesh last summer, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi approved in early March a decree that formalized the inclusion of the PMU into Iraq’s security forces. But it is clear this process will not be all-encompassing. Some of these militias have heeded the call for disarmament and integration, while others have made no secret of their intention to remain outside the scope of Iraqi state control or supervision. 

Last year, in a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called on his fighters to return all weapons provided by the government and hand over territory to Iraq’s regular security forces. Yet the spokesman of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the militias with close ties to the IRGC, has rejected any possible integration into Iraq’s security forces while welcoming the salaries and other benefits guaranteed by March’s decree. The Iraqi state is now paying for armed groups that are loyal to a foreign government. In various cases, they have even fought in Syria to protect the murderous Assad regime alongside Iranian forces, Hezbollah and a whole array of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran.
The very short-lived electoral alliance between Abadi and the leaders of some hard-line militias attests to the growing political clout of these groups. Even more so when considering Abadi has proved his independence time and again, has voiced his opposition to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs and has pursued a national reconstruction and reconciliation project. 
However, the rapid unravelling of the alliance following a widespread outcry from Iraqis of all stripes also shows that Iraqi nationalism is alive and well. 
The May elections are expected to provide a ticket to parliament for a substantial number of PMU leaders. If confirmed, the expansion of the Hezbollah model with both political and military wings will become an inescapable reality in Iraq.
In any scenario, the Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran will hardly be able to control Iraq with the same tight grip with which Hezbollah rules over Lebanon. Not only is Iraqi territory over 40 times the size of Lebanon’s, but there are other powerful armed groups across the spectrum willing and able to defend their corner. Rising tensions between these groups and Sunnis and Kurds, as well as with Iraq’s neighbors who are nervous about their presence, are guaranteed. A backlash from Iraqi Shiites, from secularists to nationalists, is also likely.
Still, the institutionalization of the Hezbollah model in Iraq is a worrisome development. The new political leverage of elected PMU leaders can be used to derail attempts to rein in the militias, push the Iraqi state to fund them and advance Tehran’s agenda. This will represent a substantial obstacle for the national reconciliation efforts of the coming government and will further undermine the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.

Source: Arab News

Iran's influence is looming large as Iraqis prepare to head to the polls for parliamentary elections in May, with many in the country worried that Tehran may be looking to strengthen its political grip on Baghdad through the ballot box.

Iranian support and military advisers helped Baghdad's Shiite-led government beat back the Islamic State group. But with IS militants now largely defeated militarily, Iran's expanding influence has emerged as one of Iraq's most divisive issues ahead of the balloting.

That influence has sown fear among Iraq's disenchanted minority Sunnis, who bore the brunt of the war's destruction, and has also caused concern in Washington. Despite tensions between the United States and Iran, both remain key allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month accused Iran of "mucking around" in Iraq's upcoming elections, telling reporters the U.S. has what he called "worrisome evidence" that Iran is funneling "not an insignificant amount of money" into Iraq to try to sway votes. Baghdad rejected the accusation.

Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi stressed that the use of foreign money in domestic politics "is illegal and unconstitutional."

"The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results," he said.

Both Iran and Iraq are Shiite-majority counties and share deep economic and cultural ties — as well as a 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) border.

The two countries fought a devastating war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead. But Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, marking the start of a prolonged period of sectarian division, extremist violence and political strife.

Under Saddam, many of Iraq's Shiite political elite spent years in exile in Iran. Since Saddam's ouster, Iraqi markets have been stocked with Iranian goods and millions of Iranian pilgrims descend on Iraq each year to visit holy shrines in the cities of Samarra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

When entire divisions of Iraq's military disintegrated following the fall of the city of Mosul to IS in the summer of 2014, Iranian influence soared.

Weeks before the U.S. began a bombing campaign against IS, Iranian advisers and support for Iraqi Shiite militias, which became known as Popular Mobilization Units, helped halt IS' advance, which came dangerously close to Baghdad. From then on, the militias became instrumental in the battle against IS.

More than 500 members of the paramilitary forces or political figures associated with the militias are now running for parliament.

Ahmed al-Asadi is one of the candidates with strong paramilitary ties. An elected member of parliament from Baghdad and former spokesman for the PMU, al-Asadi cut his ties with the force before launching his re-election bid — a formality required by a governing body overseeing the May vote.

"Iran is the ally of the powerful forces that supported Iraq against terrorism," he said, dismissing concerns that Tehran plays a destabilizing role in Iraq.

But other Iraqi politicians worry that if a large number of men like al-Asadi win seats in parliament, Iraq will be even more beholden to its eastern neighbor.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a longtime Iraqi politician and former deputy prime minister, said he expects candidates with ties to the Shiite militias to do well in upcoming elections.

"These elections will be disastrous for this country," he said. "The PMU will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister."

Iran is not the only one trying to influence the May vote, said Joost Hiltermann, a longtime Iraq researcher with the International Crisis Group.

"Everybody is trying to buy or gain influence, anybody who has a stake in Iraq that is, whether they do it with money or intimidation or other kinds of incentives," he said. "Ever since there have been elections in 2005, there's been meddling."

The future of American forces in Iraq hinges in large part on who becomes Iraq's next prime minister and who gets to lead the country's most powerful ministries.

While the Shiite militias racked up several early victories against IS, it was U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that allowed Iraqi forces to retake urban areas. Iraq remains deeply dependent on U.S. military aid, training and intelligence sharing.

While al-Abadi, who is seeking re-election with his recently formed Victory Alliance party, has said he is open to long-term American training programs for Iraqi forces, some of his opponents have taken a much harder line, describing any U.S. forces in Iraq as occupiers.

The U.S. still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, supporting its fight against remaining pockets of IS, most significantly along Iraq's volatile border with Syria, in western Anbar province and around the city of Kirkuk — areas that have seen an uptick in militant activity.

"I'm not going to speculate on anything that could or would happen," coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said when asked if there is concern that a change in government could affect the U.S.-led coalition's presence in Iraq.

"We are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq to support their operation to defeat Daesh, and we'll continue to do so as long as we are invited," he said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

Source: ABC News

In 2003, as U.S. forces entered Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr was a young Shiite Muslim cleric, little known to the American troops who toppled Saddam Hussein and ushered in a tumultuous new Iraq.

As liberation turned into occupation, Sadr, the son of a revered grand ayatollah killed for opposing Saddam, compiled a militia that presented such a serious challenge to American forces, the U.S. vowed to kill or capture him.

A couple of years later, his Mahdi Army was embroiled in Iraq's bitter sectarian war.

That was the old Muqtada al-Sadr — responding to the needs of the times, his loyalists say. Fifteen years later, Sadr, now 44, has taken another dramatic turn — reaching out to powerful Sunni Muslim countries, distancing himself from Iran and effectively burning down his own political movement.

Now, preparing for elections in May, the Shiite cleric venerated by millions of religious followers is forming a brand-new alliance with Communists and secularists.

"We have to face it," says Dhia al-Asadi, head of the Ahrar bloc, the Sadr movement's political wing. "What destroyed our country ... is groups or parties allied along sectarian or ethnic lines."

Sadr, while holding no official position in government or politics, remains one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, able to bring hundreds of thousands of followers into the streets through his family's religious legacy.

His political evolution could have far-reaching consequences for the next Iraqi government, the country's fractured Shiite political class and Iraq's relationship with neighboring Iran.

In Iraq, the new alliance asks Sadr's followers to take a major leap of faith in abandoning religion as a basis for voting.

Since the country's first postwar parliamentary elections in 2005, Iraqis have mostly voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. And Sadr owes his huge following largely to his family's religious legacy.

"Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr believes it is not the role of any politician to spread Islam or religious teachings," says Asadi, an urbane, Iraq- and U.K.-educated academic. "This is maybe seen by some as a departure from the religious ideas" of the cleric's father and father-in-law, he says.

Asadi terms it a gradual transformation.

In Sadr City, on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash-strewn streets and open sewers testify to government neglect, despite the election of more than 30 Sadr movement members to parliament and several cabinet posts.

Before 2003, the sprawling, working-class neighborhood of Sadr followers was known as Saddam City. Protests — quickly crushed by Saddam's government — erupted here when Sadr's father was killed in 1999.

As in the rest of Iraq, disillusionment with Iraqi politics runs deep.

"I'd rather vote for a Sunni," says Sabrin Hashem, a young housewife shopping on a street with posters of Sadr's father and father-in-law. "It's been how long? Fifteen years? We haven't seen anything from a Shiite government," says Hashem, dressed in the enveloping black cloak that most women here wear outside the home.

The Sadr name commands a following based on both religion and pragmatism. The cleric's late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, is credited with reviving messianic sentiment among Iraqi Shiites. Followers believe the Prophet Muhammad's 12th successor disappeared in the Iraqi city of Samarra more than 1,000 years ago and will return to herald judgment day.

The younger Sadr also inherited a legacy of social activism and services for the Shiite poor and dispossessed — a legacy jeopardized in recent years by corrupt members of his own political faction.

In response to the corruption, Sadr ordered a sweeping purge and banned all his current members of parliament from running in May's election. He said he wanted to inject "new blood" into the process.

"People are saying this is not going to work," Asadi says of the alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, made up traditionally of atheists. But Asadi doesn't agree: "I think this is going to succeed because they share the same principles, to a certain extent. They come from the same social classes, they fight for the same values and they share the same history of oppression and suppression by different regimes."

The alliance puts Sadr further at odds with Iraq's powerful neighbor.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister who is a top aide to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently visited Baghdad, warning Iraqi officials it would be unacceptable for Communists to be in government.

In contrast with the Iranian-backed militias that were assembled to fight ISIS when the Iraqi army collapsed four years ago, Sadr increasingly portrays himself as an Iraqi nationalist.

He has reached out to Saudi Arabia — which is gradually warming up to Iraq after a decade of hostility to the country's Shiite-led government — to try to lessen Iraq's isolation in the Arab Gulf countries.

"That's why Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia [last summer] — to tell them that the Shiite of Iraq are not going to be an extension of the Iranian revolution," says Asadi. "His visit was to ask them to be more present in Iraq," he adds, referring to a greater diplomatic and economic investment in the country.

Iran is not happy with the cleric, Asadi acknowledges, but he says Sadr's role in opposing U.S. intervention in the region — the same stance as Iran — prevents Tehran from opposing him outright.

Sadr has taken the same stance against Turkey and Russia, Asadi says — warning them not to intervene in Iraq. Implicitly, in demanding that all foreign forces leave, he has also called for the removal of Iranian fighters.

His opposition to Iranian influence puts Sadr in rare agreement with the United States.

"He's become an Iraqi nationalist as opposed to an Iraqi Shiite Islamist," says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador who served in Iraq as deputy chief of mission. "I don't think it's American policy to try to dominate Iraq. We simply would like it to be sovereign and independent rather than a vassal state of Iran next door so if Sadr can promote that, it's in line with American policy objectives."

In 2004, with U.S. occupation authorities in charge of Iraq, Sadr formed a militia to fight American forces, stepping into the security breach created when the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army. Sadr named it the Mahdi Army, evoking the 12th imam, whose promised reemergence would herald salvation.

He sent militia members to Fallujah to fight alongside Sunni fighters battling U.S. forces there. The U.S. military, acting on an Iraqi arrest warrant, vowed to capture or kill him.

In the sectarian war that followed, Mahdi Army leaders were accused of running death squads in Sunni areas. Sadr officials point out the cleric was in Iran for much of that time, and now say those fighters were not under his control.

Sadr eventually agreed to a cease-fire in his battle against U.S. forces and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops. He returned from Iran after American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and replaced his militia with a social services organization.

He reactivated the fighters in 2014 — creating the "Peace Brigades" to protect Samarra against ISIS. The same paramilitary force shot and killed a top security aide to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in March, when he failed to stop at one of their checkpoints.

"Even today, it's not clear that Muqtada al-Sadr has day-to-day tactical control over his militias," says Ford, now at Yale University and with the Middle East Institute. "I think the Iraqi government has a real problem with different militias, both Shiite and Kurdish and Sunni. How the Iraqi government tries step by step to assert more control over these troops will be a major factor in the development of Iraq over the next couple of years."

Source: NPR

OHA, Qatar — Global anxiety that the United States will take military action against Iran has increased now that President Trump has appointedJohn Bolton as his national security adviser. Mr. Bolton has long promoted regime change in Iran, argued for bombing Iran and a more assertive American policy against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

But the United States cannot effectively confront Tehran and its proxies until it appreciates Iran’s role in state building in Middle Eastern countries decimated by conflict.

Iran has increased its influence in the region since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. Iran mobilized tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and other Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. These militias played a critical role in defeating the Syrian rebel groups. They also fought against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, at times in close proximity to American forces.

Iraqi Shiite militias, battle-hardened from fighting the United States, began fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces in 2012. Hezbollah capturedthe strategic Syrian town of Qusair from opposition fighters in 2013. Shiite militias, including Afghan fighters, were pivotal in capturing Aleppo in December 2016, which arguably secured the survival of the Assad regime.

Over the past two years, these Iranian proxies led the fight to take back cities like Homs and areas around Damascus. They control strategically important checkpoints and support Syrian military positions across the countryside.

Hezbollah and Iraqi militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujabaa have emerged as Iran’s most powerful partners on the ground in Syria. They have decades of battlefield experience and Iran entrusted them with the training of the Shiite militias mobilized from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But these Iranian proxies do not just turn up for battle, fight and return home. Hezbollah’s political prominence and “state within a state” status in Lebanon was once the exception, but now it is a model that is being replicated by other militia groups with devastating impact.

Iran has trained these groups to exploit disorder and fill the vacuum by providing services and security to often desperate communities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees these proxies, has helped them co-opt or take over local humanitarian organizations andcharities as a way of acquiring legitimacy and popularity. Iran has ensured that aid is provided through these proxies.

And as in Iraq, Iran’s proxies in Syria have, in the areas they control, forced out populations that are not Shiite or do not support Iran. 

Control over state institutions in Syria has given Iranian proxies a significant say over the purchases of property, enabling them to further consolidate their positions. The eventual goal is to translate their gains into parliamentary seats, ministerial posts and formalized control over state institutions.

The transformation of wartime militias into prominent political actors is exemplified by the evolution of Shiite militias in Iraq into versions of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which gained notorietyfor sectarian atrocities and attacks on Western and Iraqi personnel, was established by Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Today it runs extensive social and religious activities, including medical centers and clinics, independently of the Iraqi government.

Iran’s proxies in Iraq dominate the Popular Mobilization Forces, a volunteer organization of 100,000 fighters established in 2014 after the Islamic State seized Mosul and the Iraqi military collapsed. Iranian pressure pushed the Shiite-dominated Iraqi state to legalize the force in 2016, providing it with substantial financial resources and heavy weaponry.

The Shiite proxies of Iran in Syria are motivated by the fear that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be an existential threat to the Shiite faith, a fear that Tehran encourages. Iran builds social and religious networks centered on the Shiite faith and support for Iran’s theocracy. Through technical support and sophisticated use of propaganda, Iran amplifies the voice of its proxies. Collectively, these allow Tehran to circumvent local and national authorities and ultimately shape governments, settle disputes and, consequently, decide policies.

It dismays local political actors but in countries devastated by war, Iran’s rivals are often too weak to counter its narrative and its networks on the ground.

Unlike the rotating cast of American officials and military leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, and his men have great autonomy and long engagement in the region. General Soleimani has run the Quds Force since1998 and, along with his deputies, has invested decades of time and energy into developing relations with armed groups and political parties of all stripes across the region.

For militias, the corps is a desirable patron or partner, with its record of enforcing red lines and standing by its allies. The United States has failed to even establish red lines, let alone enforce them when it comes to both its own interests and those of its allies on the ground, as Syrians, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Western-aligned Shiite factions in Iraq have found out.

Iran, meanwhile, will stick around to pick up the pieces and refashion countries and societies according to its own interests and ideology. As it did in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran will almost certainly transform its proxies in Syria into fully entrenched components of whatever political system emerges from the ruins of conflict. These Iranian allies will shape the future of the Syrian state and the political landscape of whole Middle East.

The United States can alter the course of events if it commits to staying in Syria, builds on the current deployment of American forces and nurtures long-term partnerships to ensure that the fate of Syria and the region is not left to Iran and its proxies.

 Source: The New York Times
 

Iraq’s crude oil reserves may turn out to be much higher than believed, the country’s oil minister Jabar al-Luaibi said at a recent industry event, timing the statement with news that it will pay foreign companies less in new contracts.

Last year, Iraq updated the estimate for its proven reserves to 153 billion barrels from 143 billion barrels, but if Luaibi is right, the figure could actually be double the 2017 estimate.

If the higher estimate proves true, it would make Iraq the largest oil-rich country in the world, ahead of Venezuela, which claims its reserves are just above 300 billion barrels, and also ahead of Saudi Arabia, with 260.8 billion barrels.

 

Al-Luaibi’s remarks on the reserve estimates come amid preparations for the next oil tender in the country, which is to take place next week and offer 11 exploration blocks to foreign companies.

A total 15 companies have expressed interest in bidding for the blocks in eastern and southern Iraq as the country seeks to increase its production capacity to over 5 million bpd from the current 4.35 million bpd.

But it also comes as Baghdad says it will exclude oil by-products from the revenue of foreign oil companies in new contracts that should be awarded in June. The end result will be reduced productive fees for foreign companies.

Related: Oil Majors Should Invest In Deepwater Drilling

The tender and the possible reserve update suggest Iraq does not plan to continue producing less than capacity for much longer.

This is hardly a surprise: OPEC’s number-two exporter has consistently failed to fit within its production quota under the OPEC+ agreement, forcing Saudi Arabia to reduce its production by more than it had agreed. In fact, were it not for Venezuela’s uncontrollably falling output, OPEC would not have been able to meet its objective of bringing global inventories down enough to stimulate higher prices.

Iraq has not made a secret of its production growth plans. The troubled country, which has yet to erase all traces of the Islamic State’s presence from its territory, depends on crude oil exports for 90 percent of its export revenue and does not have the means or options to initiate a quick economic turnaround.

Source: By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

Iraq has sentenced 3,130 prisoners to death for alleged links to ISIS and other militant organizations since 2013, as the nation’s criminal justice system struggles to deal with thousands of prisoners from its four-year fight against extremist groups.

Iraq has detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people accused of terror-related offenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of a 27,849-person spreadsheet of all those imprisoned in Iraq as of late January. The spreadsheet was provided by an Iraqi official on the condition of anonymity.

The real number of detained prisoners is likely to be even higher, as many prisoners are being held by police, military intelligence and Kurdish forces. Those sentenced to die include the sister of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and foreigners who traveled to join ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

Of those detained, 8,861 have been convicted of terror offenses since the start of 2013. AP quoted an Iraqi intelligence official who said it was likely that the vast majority of these were related to ISIS. Another 11,000 people are currently undergoing interrogation or are awaiting trial, another official said.

Human Rights Watch estimated a similar number of detainees and prisoners—20,000—in November 2017, and warned that overzealous use of anti-terror laws would throw those with minimal ISIS connections together with hardened fighters. “Based on all my meetings with senior government officials, I get the sense that no one—perhaps not even the prime minister himself—knows the full number of detainees,” said Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for an acceleration of executions for those convicted. Since 2014, 250 hangings have been carried out, of which 100 took place in 2017, marking a clear effort to fast-track cases. The U.N. has warned that such an approach increases the risk of “gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice.”

“Iraqi justice is failing to distinguish between the culpability of doctors who protected lives under ISIS rule and those responsible for crimes against humanity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Responding to an execution of 42 prisoners in September 2017, Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International said, “The Iraqi authorities have a deplorable track record when it comes to the use of the death penalty. In many cases previously people have been put to death after deeply unfair trials and in some cases after being tortured to ‘confess’.”

Saad al-Hadithi, a government spokesman, told AP, “The government is intent that every criminal and terrorist receive just punishment.”

As Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces fought ISIS back toward the Syrian border with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, they were left with thousands of prisoners. Iraqi authorities spared little time, or sympathy, for those that survived the journey back to Baghdad. Iraqi courts can take as little as 30 minutes to hand down death sentences for defendants.

As the U.S. found during its occupation of Iraq, holding so many terror suspects together at the same time can have unintended consequences. Several members of ISIS’s senior leadership met at the Bucca Prison in southern Iraq, where U.S. forces detained militants during the occupation. This gave prisoners a chance to network and spread their ideology. Al-Baghdadi spent almost five years in the camp.

An interior ministry officer overseeing the detention of IS suspects in the area around Mosul told AP that current prisoners have been seen circulating extremist religious teachings and seem to have contact with the outside world, despite the installation of cell phone jammers.

The majority of those being held, and hanged, are Sunni Muslims. The 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed sectarian tensions that had been held in check by Saddam Hussein’s iron fist. Shiite Muslims came to control the government of post-Saddam Iraq, and used their power to persecute Sunnis. This created deep resentment in Sunni communities and provided a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters as they swept the north of the country.

Indeed, when Mosul fell in 2014, some residents welcomed ISIS as liberators, though the group’s extremism and violence would soon alienate many. By imprisoning and executing thousands of Sunnis, some for only tenuous links to ISIS, the Iraqi government may be repeating the mistakes that allowed the group to flourish in the first place.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said he is confident that past errors would not be repeated. “The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty,” he said.

 Source: Newsweek

 

A new report adds to warnings that Iraq's government is creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country's society

BAGHDAD — In December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “complete” victory over ISIL militants after Iraqi forces backed by American advisers and air power clawed back major cities occupied by the extremists for years.

Abadi’s proclamation ushered in a period of euphoria over the end of major combat, with many Iraqis embracing a message of hope, reconciliation and recovery. But five months later, the ugly impact of ISIL’s corrosion of the social fabric of a divided society is beginning to show.

An untold number of women and children are being held against their will in camps, accused of ties to the militant group without any semblance of due process. The women are being subjected to sexual assault by camp guards and staff and are being denied many of the basic needs for survival, according to a new report by Amnesty International released on Tuesday.

The report adds to the drumbeat of warnings that Iraq’s government is effectively creating a pariah class out of some of most vulnerable people in the country’s society and shattering any hope of a national healing that would help eliminate the conditions that allow insurgencies to thrive.

“Cast out of their communities, these families have nowhere and no one to turn to,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International. “They are trapped in camps, ostracized and denied food, water and other essentials. This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence. It is no way to build the just and sustainable peace that Iraqis so desperately desire and need.”

The report cites interviews with 92 women interviewed in eight internally displaced people camps in Iraq’s Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces — many of whom escaped the intense fighting that raged for nine months during the battle to evict ISIL from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Fingered as either ISIL sympathizers, or for having a male family member join the group, the women have languished with their children in the camps and have been subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation for their perceived affiliation with the militants, according to the report.

Amnesty researchers discovered the women are routinely denied food and health care and identity cards that would allow them to work or move freely around the country. Many have nowhere to turn for help, having been shunned by their neighbours in their home cities for their alleged ISIL ties.

Some have been forced to trade sex for basic goods inside the camps while others are at an extreme risk of rape, the report said.

A woman identified only as “Dana,” 20-years-old, told Amnesty she had survived several rape attempts and was being pressured into a sexual relationship with a member of the Iraqi security services assigned to the camp where she lives.

“Because they consider me the same as an ISIL fighter, they will rape me and return me back. They want to show everyone what they can do to me — to take away my honour,” she said. “I can’t feel comfortable in my tent. I just want a door to lock and walls around me … Each night, I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die.’”

Amnesty does not offer a number of how many such women face such horrific conditions but the sheer number of displaced people in the country suggests the problem may be widespread.

According to a January report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 2.9 million Iraqis remain displaced. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration has put that figure closer to 2.5 million.

Iraq’s government has struggled to address accusations of widespread abuses by security forces during the fight against ISIL. The charges have ranged from the forced disappearances of fighting aged Sunni men in areas once occupied by ISIL to summary executions of people with tenuous ties to the group in the battlefield.

Thousands of people arrested and charged with joining ISIL, including foreigners, are being subjected to flawed trials that are leading to executions and life sentences after hearings that last less than 20 minutes.

Abadi, who is currently running for a second term as prime minister, has won some praise for his consistent message of inclusiveness and reconciliation but his government has shown few signals of reining in the continued isolation of families who have been tarred with the ISIL label.

Amnesty said Iraq’s government has not responded to its latest report.

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Source: National Post

Women and children believed to have links to the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group suffer “harrowing” sexual exploitation and discrimination in Iraq’s refugee camps, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

More than 2 million were displaced from their homes after “IS” militants swept through Iraq in 2014.

What did Amnesty find?

  • Women were being coerced and pressured into entering sexual relationships in exchange for cash, humanitarian aid and protection from other men.
  • The women also faced the risk of rape, with at least four women telling Amnesty that they had either witnessed rape or heard the screams of victims.
  • Female-led households are abused, mistreated and deprived of food and health care.

Foundation for future violence’

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s head of Middle East research wrote: “Women and children with perceived ties to IS are being punished for crimes they did not commit …This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence.”

“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”

Karl Schembri, Middle East regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “After what they’ve gone through, their vulnerability makes them victims of human exploitation once again.”

Funding shortfalls: The collective punishment being meted out to displaced women and children by security personnel and others is likely to further delay the return of peace in the war-torn country, which is already grappling with a shortage of the funds needed for initial reconstruction.

‘The Condemned’: The London-based rights group’s latest report is based on 92 interviews with women in eight camps for displaced Iraqis in the provinces of Nineveh and Salaheddin, north of Baghdad. The report is titled: “The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq.”

‘IS’ ousted: Iraq declared victory over the jihadis late last year after a grueling three-year campaign against “IS,” which had captured large swathes of territory in the country. The battle displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and devastated several towns and cities.

Source: Egypt Indepedent

Iraq will not solve the crises it faces unless it maintains an inclusive political process, overcomes sectarian divisions and rids itself of foreign interference, the Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi told The National during a visit to Dubai.

On the 12th of May Iraqis will cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections since the country's victory over ISIL. However, the state is still being hindered by issues that are debilitating its democratic process and political independence.

Mr Allawi explained that foreign intrusions in Iraq are obstructing efforts to bridge the sectarian divide and stressed that the country’s political process must be based on a common national identity.

“We don’t want an election based on sectarianism. We want an inclusive political process," he said. "However, the environment in Iraq is very sectarian, rigid and intimidating, with armed militias on the rise and the disenfranchisement of people continues.”

For years Iraq has been caught up in the region's sectarian divisions. But tensions were further exacerbated when Tehran leveraged its ties with Iraq's Shia majority and emerged as the country's major foreign power broker.

Mr Allawi says he advised the Iranian ambassador in Iraq that he shouldn’t encourage his government to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. “We know that there are senior Iranians based in Iraq that have an internal influence. This is not healthy, I speak to most leaders of the Shiite and Sunni blocs, they don’t want to see any foreign government getting involved.”

In addition to external meddling, Mr Allawi cites problematic institutions, poverty, security and terrorism as key factors behind Iraq's political failure. "There needs to be a rectified process that is not based on decisions taken in Tehran or Washington or anywhere else,” he said.

In the 2010 elections, Mr Allawi won more seats than Nouri Al Maliki - his fiercest competitor and close ally of Iran - but fell short of a majority. He accuses Iran of blocking his bid to become prime minister.

However, added the 73-year-old vice president, he doesn’t “harbour any animosity towards Iran or the neighbouring states” but instead urges the international community to “let Iraqis choose their leaders and representatives.”

Tehran denies any interference in Iraqi politics and says it has only provided military assistance to Shiite paramilitary groups in their fight against ISIL.

But with ISIL defeated , the future role of the militias presents a challenge for the central government, as many Iraqis voice concern over the participation of pro-Iranian movements in the elections.

Mr Allawi pointed out that the militias, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, present two troubling elements.

One, he explains, is that "they have become a legal entity in the state and the other is the unknown - what they are doing, and the fact that they are intimidating and harassing people.”

Source: The National

Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi launched an electoral campaign focusing on countering corruption, dubbing it “the call of the homeland.”

“Some of those who assumed responsibility after 2003 did not carry the project of building a state,” Allawi said in a televised speech on Sunday evening.

Allawi, one of the three Vice-Presidents of the Republic, added that “some took advantage of their influence and international relations to overrun real voices of the people expressed in the 2010 elections.”

He pointed out that “abhorrent quotas and power sharing according to different and narrow loyalties caused tragedies, public displacement, security setbacks and corruption.”

On the purpose of this campaign, Allawi said it aimed to “save Iraq and its people from humiliation,” adding that his bloc believed in “the ability of young people to change reality.”

“Our project and the youth project will revolve around achieving realistic reform.”

The leader of the National Coalition warned against distorting the will of Iraqi voters, manipulating votes and bringing in debts. “We will not stand idly by anymore,” Allawi warned.

Conversely, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Dr. Salim al-Jabouri acknowledged on Saturday the inability of the current political class to combat corruption.

Jubouri said Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption, calling for a million people demonstration on Election Day for change.

Speaking during an Islamic conference in Baghdad on Saturday, Jabouri said that “the will for change cannot be achieved through resentment, but requires a revolutionary electoral change,” pointing out that “Iraq has not yet been able to eliminate corruption.”

More so, member of the parliament's financial transparency commission Rahim al-Darraji slammed the current political class for corruption.

Commenting on the announcement by the speaker of the parliament about the inability of the political class to fight corruption, Darraji told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the current Iraqi political class failed to achieve anything useful for the country,” noting that “failure was evident in everything and not only in counter-corruption efforts.”

He said it also failed in the ability to build state institutions.

Darraji stressed that “the Iraqi public must not reelect this political class and that it should come up with new faces rather than masking old faces.”

“Current politicians have proven themselves to be crisis riding and sectarian men, not statesmen,” concluded Darraji.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

On the 15th anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by US forces, Iraq is reaching another critical moment in its troubled history. The outcome of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12 could end the more positive trajectory under the current leadership and inaugurate yet another troublesome chapter. Possibly, perhaps even most likely, these elections will institutionalize Lebanon’s Hezbollah model (in the most negative of senses) in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system since the US invasion already replicates Lebanon’s. After one-and-a-half decades of civil war in Lebanon, the Taif Agreement of 1989 set the stage for the end of the conflict and reformed the power-sharing system between the country’s main religious communities. In retrospect, Taif contributed to Lebanon’s political dysfunctionality: Syria, designated Lebanon’s post-war power-broker, mostly exacerbated divisions between Sunnis and Shiites; the agreement required Lebanese militias to disarm but it exempted Hezbollah, a critical step for Tehran’s ally to impose the militia as a state above the state; and it did not achieve its goal of gradually eliminating political confessionalism.
As with Lebanon, Iraq’s political system is equally dysfunctional and prone to deadlocks, paralysis and behind the stage machinations. Iraq’s constitution of 2005 does not explicitly allocate key political posts on a sectarian basis, but the positions of president, prime minister and speaker of parliament are effectively reserved for Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis respectively. Iran today plays a role in Iraq that is as influential and intrusive as the one Syria played in Lebanon even after withdrawal following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 
The fight against Daesh — a terrorist insurgency that the outright sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, backed by Iran, helped create — provided a further opportunity for Iran to expand its political and strategic leverage. The Popular Mobilization Units, formed in 2014 in response to a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to confront Daesh, became a double-edged sword: A formidable fighting force that helped push back Daesh when the Iraqi army was nowhere to be seen, but also a predominantly Shiite armed movement parallel to and often in competition with the state. Various of these militias, which taken together are given the umbrella name of PMUs, have close operational and even ideological ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and are outright loyal to Tehran. 
As anticipated, after substantive progress in the fight against Daesh last summer, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi approved in early March a decree that formalized the inclusion of the PMU into Iraq’s security forces. But it is clear this process will not be all-encompassing. Some of these militias have heeded the call for disarmament and integration, while others have made no secret of their intention to remain outside the scope of Iraqi state control or supervision. 

Last year, in a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called on his fighters to return all weapons provided by the government and hand over territory to Iraq’s regular security forces. Yet the spokesman of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the militias with close ties to the IRGC, has rejected any possible integration into Iraq’s security forces while welcoming the salaries and other benefits guaranteed by March’s decree. The Iraqi state is now paying for armed groups that are loyal to a foreign government. In various cases, they have even fought in Syria to protect the murderous Assad regime alongside Iranian forces, Hezbollah and a whole array of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran.
The very short-lived electoral alliance between Abadi and the leaders of some hard-line militias attests to the growing political clout of these groups. Even more so when considering Abadi has proved his independence time and again, has voiced his opposition to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs and has pursued a national reconstruction and reconciliation project. 
However, the rapid unravelling of the alliance following a widespread outcry from Iraqis of all stripes also shows that Iraqi nationalism is alive and well. 
The May elections are expected to provide a ticket to parliament for a substantial number of PMU leaders. If confirmed, the expansion of the Hezbollah model with both political and military wings will become an inescapable reality in Iraq.
In any scenario, the Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran will hardly be able to control Iraq with the same tight grip with which Hezbollah rules over Lebanon. Not only is Iraqi territory over 40 times the size of Lebanon’s, but there are other powerful armed groups across the spectrum willing and able to defend their corner. Rising tensions between these groups and Sunnis and Kurds, as well as with Iraq’s neighbors who are nervous about their presence, are guaranteed. A backlash from Iraqi Shiites, from secularists to nationalists, is also likely.
Still, the institutionalization of the Hezbollah model in Iraq is a worrisome development. The new political leverage of elected PMU leaders can be used to derail attempts to rein in the militias, push the Iraqi state to fund them and advance Tehran’s agenda. This will represent a substantial obstacle for the national reconciliation efforts of the coming government and will further undermine the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.

Source: Arab News

Iran's influence is looming large as Iraqis prepare to head to the polls for parliamentary elections in May, with many in the country worried that Tehran may be looking to strengthen its political grip on Baghdad through the ballot box.

Iranian support and military advisers helped Baghdad's Shiite-led government beat back the Islamic State group. But with IS militants now largely defeated militarily, Iran's expanding influence has emerged as one of Iraq's most divisive issues ahead of the balloting.

That influence has sown fear among Iraq's disenchanted minority Sunnis, who bore the brunt of the war's destruction, and has also caused concern in Washington. Despite tensions between the United States and Iran, both remain key allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month accused Iran of "mucking around" in Iraq's upcoming elections, telling reporters the U.S. has what he called "worrisome evidence" that Iran is funneling "not an insignificant amount of money" into Iraq to try to sway votes. Baghdad rejected the accusation.

Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi stressed that the use of foreign money in domestic politics "is illegal and unconstitutional."

"The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results," he said.

Both Iran and Iraq are Shiite-majority counties and share deep economic and cultural ties — as well as a 1,500-kilometer (900-mile) border.

The two countries fought a devastating war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead. But Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, marking the start of a prolonged period of sectarian division, extremist violence and political strife.

Under Saddam, many of Iraq's Shiite political elite spent years in exile in Iran. Since Saddam's ouster, Iraqi markets have been stocked with Iranian goods and millions of Iranian pilgrims descend on Iraq each year to visit holy shrines in the cities of Samarra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

When entire divisions of Iraq's military disintegrated following the fall of the city of Mosul to IS in the summer of 2014, Iranian influence soared.

Weeks before the U.S. began a bombing campaign against IS, Iranian advisers and support for Iraqi Shiite militias, which became known as Popular Mobilization Units, helped halt IS' advance, which came dangerously close to Baghdad. From then on, the militias became instrumental in the battle against IS.

More than 500 members of the paramilitary forces or political figures associated with the militias are now running for parliament.

Ahmed al-Asadi is one of the candidates with strong paramilitary ties. An elected member of parliament from Baghdad and former spokesman for the PMU, al-Asadi cut his ties with the force before launching his re-election bid — a formality required by a governing body overseeing the May vote.

"Iran is the ally of the powerful forces that supported Iraq against terrorism," he said, dismissing concerns that Tehran plays a destabilizing role in Iraq.

But other Iraqi politicians worry that if a large number of men like al-Asadi win seats in parliament, Iraq will be even more beholden to its eastern neighbor.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a longtime Iraqi politician and former deputy prime minister, said he expects candidates with ties to the Shiite militias to do well in upcoming elections.

"These elections will be disastrous for this country," he said. "The PMU will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister."

Iran is not the only one trying to influence the May vote, said Joost Hiltermann, a longtime Iraq researcher with the International Crisis Group.

"Everybody is trying to buy or gain influence, anybody who has a stake in Iraq that is, whether they do it with money or intimidation or other kinds of incentives," he said. "Ever since there have been elections in 2005, there's been meddling."

The future of American forces in Iraq hinges in large part on who becomes Iraq's next prime minister and who gets to lead the country's most powerful ministries.

While the Shiite militias racked up several early victories against IS, it was U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that allowed Iraqi forces to retake urban areas. Iraq remains deeply dependent on U.S. military aid, training and intelligence sharing.

While al-Abadi, who is seeking re-election with his recently formed Victory Alliance party, has said he is open to long-term American training programs for Iraqi forces, some of his opponents have taken a much harder line, describing any U.S. forces in Iraq as occupiers.

The U.S. still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, supporting its fight against remaining pockets of IS, most significantly along Iraq's volatile border with Syria, in western Anbar province and around the city of Kirkuk — areas that have seen an uptick in militant activity.

"I'm not going to speculate on anything that could or would happen," coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said when asked if there is concern that a change in government could affect the U.S.-led coalition's presence in Iraq.

"We are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq to support their operation to defeat Daesh, and we'll continue to do so as long as we are invited," he said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

Source: ABC News

In 2003, as U.S. forces entered Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr was a young Shiite Muslim cleric, little known to the American troops who toppled Saddam Hussein and ushered in a tumultuous new Iraq.

As liberation turned into occupation, Sadr, the son of a revered grand ayatollah killed for opposing Saddam, compiled a militia that presented such a serious challenge to American forces, the U.S. vowed to kill or capture him.

A couple of years later, his Mahdi Army was embroiled in Iraq's bitter sectarian war.

That was the old Muqtada al-Sadr — responding to the needs of the times, his loyalists say. Fifteen years later, Sadr, now 44, has taken another dramatic turn — reaching out to powerful Sunni Muslim countries, distancing himself from Iran and effectively burning down his own political movement.

Now, preparing for elections in May, the Shiite cleric venerated by millions of religious followers is forming a brand-new alliance with Communists and secularists.

"We have to face it," says Dhia al-Asadi, head of the Ahrar bloc, the Sadr movement's political wing. "What destroyed our country ... is groups or parties allied along sectarian or ethnic lines."

Sadr, while holding no official position in government or politics, remains one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, able to bring hundreds of thousands of followers into the streets through his family's religious legacy.

His political evolution could have far-reaching consequences for the next Iraqi government, the country's fractured Shiite political class and Iraq's relationship with neighboring Iran.

In Iraq, the new alliance asks Sadr's followers to take a major leap of faith in abandoning religion as a basis for voting.

Since the country's first postwar parliamentary elections in 2005, Iraqis have mostly voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. And Sadr owes his huge following largely to his family's religious legacy.

"Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr believes it is not the role of any politician to spread Islam or religious teachings," says Asadi, an urbane, Iraq- and U.K.-educated academic. "This is maybe seen by some as a departure from the religious ideas" of the cleric's father and father-in-law, he says.

Asadi terms it a gradual transformation.

In Sadr City, on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash-strewn streets and open sewers testify to government neglect, despite the election of more than 30 Sadr movement members to parliament and several cabinet posts.

Before 2003, the sprawling, working-class neighborhood of Sadr followers was known as Saddam City. Protests — quickly crushed by Saddam's government — erupted here when Sadr's father was killed in 1999.

As in the rest of Iraq, disillusionment with Iraqi politics runs deep.

"I'd rather vote for a Sunni," says Sabrin Hashem, a young housewife shopping on a street with posters of Sadr's father and father-in-law. "It's been how long? Fifteen years? We haven't seen anything from a Shiite government," says Hashem, dressed in the enveloping black cloak that most women here wear outside the home.

The Sadr name commands a following based on both religion and pragmatism. The cleric's late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, is credited with reviving messianic sentiment among Iraqi Shiites. Followers believe the Prophet Muhammad's 12th successor disappeared in the Iraqi city of Samarra more than 1,000 years ago and will return to herald judgment day.

The younger Sadr also inherited a legacy of social activism and services for the Shiite poor and dispossessed — a legacy jeopardized in recent years by corrupt members of his own political faction.

In response to the corruption, Sadr ordered a sweeping purge and banned all his current members of parliament from running in May's election. He said he wanted to inject "new blood" into the process.

"People are saying this is not going to work," Asadi says of the alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, made up traditionally of atheists. But Asadi doesn't agree: "I think this is going to succeed because they share the same principles, to a certain extent. They come from the same social classes, they fight for the same values and they share the same history of oppression and suppression by different regimes."

The alliance puts Sadr further at odds with Iraq's powerful neighbor.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister who is a top aide to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently visited Baghdad, warning Iraqi officials it would be unacceptable for Communists to be in government.

In contrast with the Iranian-backed militias that were assembled to fight ISIS when the Iraqi army collapsed four years ago, Sadr increasingly portrays himself as an Iraqi nationalist.

He has reached out to Saudi Arabia — which is gradually warming up to Iraq after a decade of hostility to the country's Shiite-led government — to try to lessen Iraq's isolation in the Arab Gulf countries.

"That's why Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia [last summer] — to tell them that the Shiite of Iraq are not going to be an extension of the Iranian revolution," says Asadi. "His visit was to ask them to be more present in Iraq," he adds, referring to a greater diplomatic and economic investment in the country.

Iran is not happy with the cleric, Asadi acknowledges, but he says Sadr's role in opposing U.S. intervention in the region — the same stance as Iran — prevents Tehran from opposing him outright.

Sadr has taken the same stance against Turkey and Russia, Asadi says — warning them not to intervene in Iraq. Implicitly, in demanding that all foreign forces leave, he has also called for the removal of Iranian fighters.

His opposition to Iranian influence puts Sadr in rare agreement with the United States.

"He's become an Iraqi nationalist as opposed to an Iraqi Shiite Islamist," says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador who served in Iraq as deputy chief of mission. "I don't think it's American policy to try to dominate Iraq. We simply would like it to be sovereign and independent rather than a vassal state of Iran next door so if Sadr can promote that, it's in line with American policy objectives."

In 2004, with U.S. occupation authorities in charge of Iraq, Sadr formed a militia to fight American forces, stepping into the security breach created when the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army. Sadr named it the Mahdi Army, evoking the 12th imam, whose promised reemergence would herald salvation.

He sent militia members to Fallujah to fight alongside Sunni fighters battling U.S. forces there. The U.S. military, acting on an Iraqi arrest warrant, vowed to capture or kill him.

In the sectarian war that followed, Mahdi Army leaders were accused of running death squads in Sunni areas. Sadr officials point out the cleric was in Iran for much of that time, and now say those fighters were not under his control.

Sadr eventually agreed to a cease-fire in his battle against U.S. forces and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops. He returned from Iran after American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and replaced his militia with a social services organization.

He reactivated the fighters in 2014 — creating the "Peace Brigades" to protect Samarra against ISIS. The same paramilitary force shot and killed a top security aide to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in March, when he failed to stop at one of their checkpoints.

"Even today, it's not clear that Muqtada al-Sadr has day-to-day tactical control over his militias," says Ford, now at Yale University and with the Middle East Institute. "I think the Iraqi government has a real problem with different militias, both Shiite and Kurdish and Sunni. How the Iraqi government tries step by step to assert more control over these troops will be a major factor in the development of Iraq over the next couple of years."

Source: NPR

OHA, Qatar — Global anxiety that the United States will take military action against Iran has increased now that President Trump has appointedJohn Bolton as his national security adviser. Mr. Bolton has long promoted regime change in Iran, argued for bombing Iran and a more assertive American policy against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

But the United States cannot effectively confront Tehran and its proxies until it appreciates Iran’s role in state building in Middle Eastern countries decimated by conflict.

Iran has increased its influence in the region since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. Iran mobilized tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and other Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. These militias played a critical role in defeating the Syrian rebel groups. They also fought against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, at times in close proximity to American forces.

Iraqi Shiite militias, battle-hardened from fighting the United States, began fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces in 2012. Hezbollah capturedthe strategic Syrian town of Qusair from opposition fighters in 2013. Shiite militias, including Afghan fighters, were pivotal in capturing Aleppo in December 2016, which arguably secured the survival of the Assad regime.

Over the past two years, these Iranian proxies led the fight to take back cities like Homs and areas around Damascus. They control strategically important checkpoints and support Syrian military positions across the countryside.

Hezbollah and Iraqi militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujabaa have emerged as Iran’s most powerful partners on the ground in Syria. They have decades of battlefield experience and Iran entrusted them with the training of the Shiite militias mobilized from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But these Iranian proxies do not just turn up for battle, fight and return home. Hezbollah’s political prominence and “state within a state” status in Lebanon was once the exception, but now it is a model that is being replicated by other militia groups with devastating impact.

Iran has trained these groups to exploit disorder and fill the vacuum by providing services and security to often desperate communities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees these proxies, has helped them co-opt or take over local humanitarian organizations andcharities as a way of acquiring legitimacy and popularity. Iran has ensured that aid is provided through these proxies.

And as in Iraq, Iran’s proxies in Syria have, in the areas they control, forced out populations that are not Shiite or do not support Iran. 

Control over state institutions in Syria has given Iranian proxies a significant say over the purchases of property, enabling them to further consolidate their positions. The eventual goal is to translate their gains into parliamentary seats, ministerial posts and formalized control over state institutions.

The transformation of wartime militias into prominent political actors is exemplified by the evolution of Shiite militias in Iraq into versions of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which gained notorietyfor sectarian atrocities and attacks on Western and Iraqi personnel, was established by Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Today it runs extensive social and religious activities, including medical centers and clinics, independently of the Iraqi government.

Iran’s proxies in Iraq dominate the Popular Mobilization Forces, a volunteer organization of 100,000 fighters established in 2014 after the Islamic State seized Mosul and the Iraqi military collapsed. Iranian pressure pushed the Shiite-dominated Iraqi state to legalize the force in 2016, providing it with substantial financial resources and heavy weaponry.

The Shiite proxies of Iran in Syria are motivated by the fear that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be an existential threat to the Shiite faith, a fear that Tehran encourages. Iran builds social and religious networks centered on the Shiite faith and support for Iran’s theocracy. Through technical support and sophisticated use of propaganda, Iran amplifies the voice of its proxies. Collectively, these allow Tehran to circumvent local and national authorities and ultimately shape governments, settle disputes and, consequently, decide policies.

It dismays local political actors but in countries devastated by war, Iran’s rivals are often too weak to counter its narrative and its networks on the ground.

Unlike the rotating cast of American officials and military leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, and his men have great autonomy and long engagement in the region. General Soleimani has run the Quds Force since1998 and, along with his deputies, has invested decades of time and energy into developing relations with armed groups and political parties of all stripes across the region.

For militias, the corps is a desirable patron or partner, with its record of enforcing red lines and standing by its allies. The United States has failed to even establish red lines, let alone enforce them when it comes to both its own interests and those of its allies on the ground, as Syrians, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Western-aligned Shiite factions in Iraq have found out.

Iran, meanwhile, will stick around to pick up the pieces and refashion countries and societies according to its own interests and ideology. As it did in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran will almost certainly transform its proxies in Syria into fully entrenched components of whatever political system emerges from the ruins of conflict. These Iranian allies will shape the future of the Syrian state and the political landscape of whole Middle East.

The United States can alter the course of events if it commits to staying in Syria, builds on the current deployment of American forces and nurtures long-term partnerships to ensure that the fate of Syria and the region is not left to Iran and its proxies.

 Source: The New York Times
 

Iraq’s crude oil reserves may turn out to be much higher than believed, the country’s oil minister Jabar al-Luaibi said at a recent industry event, timing the statement with news that it will pay foreign companies less in new contracts.

Last year, Iraq updated the estimate for its proven reserves to 153 billion barrels from 143 billion barrels, but if Luaibi is right, the figure could actually be double the 2017 estimate.

If the higher estimate proves true, it would make Iraq the largest oil-rich country in the world, ahead of Venezuela, which claims its reserves are just above 300 billion barrels, and also ahead of Saudi Arabia, with 260.8 billion barrels.

 

Al-Luaibi’s remarks on the reserve estimates come amid preparations for the next oil tender in the country, which is to take place next week and offer 11 exploration blocks to foreign companies.

A total 15 companies have expressed interest in bidding for the blocks in eastern and southern Iraq as the country seeks to increase its production capacity to over 5 million bpd from the current 4.35 million bpd.

But it also comes as Baghdad says it will exclude oil by-products from the revenue of foreign oil companies in new contracts that should be awarded in June. The end result will be reduced productive fees for foreign companies.

Related: Oil Majors Should Invest In Deepwater Drilling

The tender and the possible reserve update suggest Iraq does not plan to continue producing less than capacity for much longer.

This is hardly a surprise: OPEC’s number-two exporter has consistently failed to fit within its production quota under the OPEC+ agreement, forcing Saudi Arabia to reduce its production by more than it had agreed. In fact, were it not for Venezuela’s uncontrollably falling output, OPEC would not have been able to meet its objective of bringing global inventories down enough to stimulate higher prices.

Iraq has not made a secret of its production growth plans. The troubled country, which has yet to erase all traces of the Islamic State’s presence from its territory, depends on crude oil exports for 90 percent of its export revenue and does not have the means or options to initiate a quick economic turnaround.

Source: By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

Iraq has sentenced 3,130 prisoners to death for alleged links to ISIS and other militant organizations since 2013, as the nation’s criminal justice system struggles to deal with thousands of prisoners from its four-year fight against extremist groups.

Iraq has detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people accused of terror-related offenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of a 27,849-person spreadsheet of all those imprisoned in Iraq as of late January. The spreadsheet was provided by an Iraqi official on the condition of anonymity.

The real number of detained prisoners is likely to be even higher, as many prisoners are being held by police, military intelligence and Kurdish forces. Those sentenced to die include the sister of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and foreigners who traveled to join ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

Of those detained, 8,861 have been convicted of terror offenses since the start of 2013. AP quoted an Iraqi intelligence official who said it was likely that the vast majority of these were related to ISIS. Another 11,000 people are currently undergoing interrogation or are awaiting trial, another official said.

Human Rights Watch estimated a similar number of detainees and prisoners—20,000—in November 2017, and warned that overzealous use of anti-terror laws would throw those with minimal ISIS connections together with hardened fighters. “Based on all my meetings with senior government officials, I get the sense that no one—perhaps not even the prime minister himself—knows the full number of detainees,” said Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for an acceleration of executions for those convicted. Since 2014, 250 hangings have been carried out, of which 100 took place in 2017, marking a clear effort to fast-track cases. The U.N. has warned that such an approach increases the risk of “gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice.”

“Iraqi justice is failing to distinguish between the culpability of doctors who protected lives under ISIS rule and those responsible for crimes against humanity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Responding to an execution of 42 prisoners in September 2017, Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International said, “The Iraqi authorities have a deplorable track record when it comes to the use of the death penalty. In many cases previously people have been put to death after deeply unfair trials and in some cases after being tortured to ‘confess’.”

Saad al-Hadithi, a government spokesman, told AP, “The government is intent that every criminal and terrorist receive just punishment.”

As Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces fought ISIS back toward the Syrian border with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, they were left with thousands of prisoners. Iraqi authorities spared little time, or sympathy, for those that survived the journey back to Baghdad. Iraqi courts can take as little as 30 minutes to hand down death sentences for defendants.

As the U.S. found during its occupation of Iraq, holding so many terror suspects together at the same time can have unintended consequences. Several members of ISIS’s senior leadership met at the Bucca Prison in southern Iraq, where U.S. forces detained militants during the occupation. This gave prisoners a chance to network and spread their ideology. Al-Baghdadi spent almost five years in the camp.

An interior ministry officer overseeing the detention of IS suspects in the area around Mosul told AP that current prisoners have been seen circulating extremist religious teachings and seem to have contact with the outside world, despite the installation of cell phone jammers.

The majority of those being held, and hanged, are Sunni Muslims. The 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed sectarian tensions that had been held in check by Saddam Hussein’s iron fist. Shiite Muslims came to control the government of post-Saddam Iraq, and used their power to persecute Sunnis. This created deep resentment in Sunni communities and provided a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters as they swept the north of the country.

Indeed, when Mosul fell in 2014, some residents welcomed ISIS as liberators, though the group’s extremism and violence would soon alienate many. By imprisoning and executing thousands of Sunnis, some for only tenuous links to ISIS, the Iraqi government may be repeating the mistakes that allowed the group to flourish in the first place.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said he is confident that past errors would not be repeated. “The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty,” he said.

 Source: Newsweek

 

EIFA WARNS ABOUT GROWING PRESENCE OF SEC...

EIFA - Press releaseThere are alarming and escalating reports about the presence...

Exclusive: Biography and record of Hadi Farhan Abdullah al-Ameri

Exclusive: Biography and record of Hadi ...

-European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)- Hadi Farhan Abdullah al-Ameri, know...

Iraq: We must stop meddling by Iran and its criminal militias

Iraq: We must stop meddling by Iran and ...

Brussels, European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA) press release - The continui...