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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 49 New Delhi November 28, 2015

Islamic State’s Defeats in Iraq

Friday 27 November 2015, by Harish Chandola

The Paris carnage of Friday, November 13, could have been a consequence of the Islamic State’s (IS’) major losses in its war in Iraq in the previous month of October. The IS possibly wanted to demonstrate that it is still a force capable of hitting targets of its choice, in spite of those defeats.

The Iraqi Army on October 7 had succeeded in retaking Ramadi, the capital city of the Sunni Anbar province, west of Baghdad. It also took control of the critical Abu Farraj bridge over the Euphrates, with 1000 Islamic State fighters still in the city. On October 15, Iraqi soldiers, supported by 10,000 Iranian Shi’a militia called Hashid al Shabi (Popular Mobilisation Units), recaptured the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq’s largest, from which the Islamic State had been earning a good deal of money by the sale of its oil. These developments will make it difficult for the IS to threaten Tikrit, retaken from the IS by the Iraqi Government in April. The Iraqi Army’s two divisions had collapsed 18 months ago when the IS had rampaged through northern and western Iraq, seizing Mosul, the country’s second city with a population of nearly two million, and was moving close to Baghdad.

The Americans are supplying to the Iraqi Army armoured bull-dozers to clear booby-trapped IS defences. They have also conducted 150 air strikes on IS positions in three weeks, mostly around Ramadi. On October 22 the American Special Forces, with the help of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, rescued 69 prisoners held by the IS near the northern town of Hawija. One American soldier was killed in the fighting. The Kurds had informed the Americans that the captives were about to be murdered.

There are about 3500 American military trainers in Iraq who have been largely confined to their bases. President Barak Obama recently said in Turkey that he would not send more troops to Iraq in spite of recent speculation to that effect.

Meanwhile Russians established in Baghdad a military intelligence “Coordination cell” with Iran and Syria. This caused such concern in Washington that it sent its most senior officer, Marine General Joe Dunford, to Iraq to warn the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the Defence Minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, that America would not continue its present level of military support if the Russians start carrying on air strikes on their own.

Many Iraqis are disappointed over the level of America’s commitment. They believed that the US would attack the so-called IS Caliphate far more energetically than it has.

The Iranian Hashid al-Shabi militia is fighting in Salahuddib province, north of Baghdad, and is being kept away from the Anbar province in the west. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under pressure from the Americans to try to limit the Iranian militia’s role in defeating the IS. Nor do the Americans want Russia to play a major role in defeating the IS and want the Iraqi Government to accept that the American coalition is its essential ally against the IS.

During the recent G-2O summit in Turkey, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said something very significant. He accused some of those countries taking part in the summit of supporting the Islamic State. Among those were Saudi Arabia and the summit host, Turkey. Saudis had provided vast sums to the IS and the easiest and popular passage for the IS fighters, particularly the foreign ones, was through Turkey. A recent book, The Crossing, by a Syrian living in Europe, Ms Samar Yazbek, provides an account of how easy it was to cross from Turkey into Syria which, she said, she herself had done many times. All foreign and some Syrian fighters had been using this border to get into and out of Syria.

The United States, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has never cautioned or restrained it from providing financial and other help to the IS. Saudi Arabia has also been bombing its southern neighbour, Yemen, for almost a year, causing the death of its Houthi Shi’a tribe there, much destruction and possibly in future a bigger refugee crisis than that of Syria. Most military equipment Saudi Arabia uses in its war in Yemen is American. Yet, the US has never restrained Saudi Arabia from using that equipment in carrying out bloodshed in its next-door country.

It is not only Saudi Arabia that has been providing support to the Islamic State but also other Sunni Gulf monarchies as well, all of which are in a defence alliance with the United States. The Islamic State is a Sunni Moslem organisation, which wants to remove Shi’as from power in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Americans have been supporting the removal of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, from power because he belongs to a branch of the Shi’a, called Alawi. But he was elected President of his country on the basis of a popular vote. Of course, his system of governance is not the same as that of the US and other Western countries. But where does the US see democracy among its allies in the Middle East, which are all monarchies? The US had recruited and sent fighters to Syria to oust al-Assad, some of whom were killed in fighting there. How can it ask the Syrian President to leave before peace is established in that country? The US and other Western countries want to change the Syrian system of governance and install leaders of their choice there. They want to do the same as what they had done in Iraq in 1993, which has not succeeded so far.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments. He also covered the 1962 Yemen war.