BAGHDAD: A series of political spats that erupted in Baghdad over the past week surrounding foreign forces on Iraqi soil have exposed the increasing weakness of Iraq’s central government and a growing disconnect between Washington and Baghdad in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State group
Following exaggerated media reports of Turkish troops deploying to a base near Mosul, politicians in Baghdad were quick to express outrage. Despite Turkey’s insistence that the troops were part of a training mission coordinated with Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave Turkey an ultimatum late Sunday night: Turkey must withdraw its troops within 48 hours or else Iraq will bring the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
In truth, a few hundred Turkish trainers have been present in Iraq for months, working to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Sunni militiamen. Their presence, while not publicly advertised, appears to have been done in coordination with both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government in Iraq’s north.
One senior Iraqi lawmaker said Abadi’s angry public reaction was a reflection of pressure from Iran — one of Abadi’s strongest allies.
“Let us be realistic,” said the lawmaker, who requested his name be withheld so he could speak freely on the subject. “This is not Baghdad that’s upset about the Turkish troops. Baghdad authorized those troops, this is another country that’s now pulling the strings.”
Iranian influence in Iraqi politics and in the country’s security apparatus has significantly increased in the past 18 months as the country has struggled to recover after the fall of Mosul and the loss of large swaths of territory to the Islamic State group.
In the wake of international acts of terrorism with links to IS, U.S. officials have pushed the Obama administration to increase military intervention against the Islamic State group in Iraq. But analysts and officials warn the moves are only weakening Abadi, the man whose government President Obama cited as a key factor in his decision to step up the U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes against IS in September 2014.
The coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq needs a strong Iraqi central government to be effective, according to analysts and senior coalition officials in Baghdad — especially as Iraqi forces backed by coalition airstrikes move to help retake territory in majority Sunni parts of the country.
Iraq’s ruling Shiite parties and the country’s powerful Shiite militia groups have already reacted with hostility to Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent announcement that the U.S. military would deploy a new special operations force to Iraq.
“Iraq does not need foreign ground forces and the Iraqi government is committed not to allow the presence of any ground force on Iraqi land,” Abadi said in a statement. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, considered one of the country’s most powerful Shiite militias, said Monday that any U.S. base in Iraq would be considered “a target” by his fighters.
There are currently some 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, training Iraqi forces and supporting the U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes.
In comments to the Associated Press, Abadi’s spokesman walked back the prime minister’s comments, saying that the government had requested more overflights, weapons and equipment.
“There will be special forces on board the aircraft,” said Saad al-Hadithi. “The matter was discussed with top Iraqi leaders and they approved these forces.”
Regardless, as an airstrike-heavy approach to the fight against IS in Iraq appears to be stalling in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Ninevah, the hostility to increased numbers of U.S. troops is seen as a bad sign by some.
“You can’t take Anbar back without the Sunnis and honestly you can’t get the Sunnis (on board) without an outside force like the U.S.,” said a senior coalition diplomat in Baghdad. The level of distrust between Iraq’s Sunnis and the central government is so high, the diplomat said, that a mediating force is needed to effectively execute military operations in Sunni-dominated territory.
But in the current political climate, the diplomat explained, endorsing the deployment of U.S. ground troops would be political suicide for Abadi. The prime minister didn’t enter office with a broad base of support and has failed to build one during his first year in office.
“I think now he’s missed the boat,” said Muwaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite lawmaker and former member of Abadi’s Dawa party.
Abadi had an opportunity to establish a base of support when he was riding a wave of public goodwill following the introduction of a political and anti-corruption reform package, Rubaie said. But in the weeks that followed he bungled the opportunity, specifically in his handling of proposed salary cuts that looked set to hurt Iraq’s dwindling middle class — the very people who supported the reforms to begin with.
“He was never a strong guy. By nature he dithers and is reluctant, but I honestly believe he missed his opportunity,” said Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser.
A number of Iraqi lawmakers contacted by The Associated Press paint a similar picture of Abadi: a well-intentioned man tasked with an impossible job who is now attempting to compensate with heavy-handed rhetoric.
As Abadi has weakened, his rivals inside and outside of parliament have grown in strength. The umbrella group of Shiite militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, who are already significantly more powerful than the Iraqi military, appear set to receive an even larger share of next year’s budget. Amiri, the head of the Badr brigade, and Naim Aboudi the spokesman for Asaib al-Haq, another Shiite militia, confirmed they expect to receive more supplies in the coming year and heavier weaponry.
Amiri says without a doubt Abadi is a weak leader, but he doesn’t think anyone else would be able to do a better job.
“Any other person who could come (to assume the position of prime minister), won’t have a magical wand that can change the situation,” he said.
In the meantime Amiri says he counsels Abadi to reach out more to other political parties and groups to keep what little power he still has.
Regardless, Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform in Baghdad, doesn’t believe Abadi’s position is in any danger. Partially, because parliament lacks the votes needed for a vote of no confidence and partially because for the moment, Abadi’s rivals are served by the status quo.
“They want a weak prime minister who’s not able to challenge the parties and unable to challenge the corrupt,” Jiyad said. “Everyone is working for their own gain, even members of his own party.”
However, Jiyad said, a weakened Abadi is a problem for the U.S.-led coalition.
“They need someone who can work with the Iranians, who can work with the Shiite majority in Iraq and at the same time keep the Sunnis on board, and keep the Kurds on board.”
“If you don’t want the breakup of Iraq,” he continued, “you’re still relying on the strong central government in a federal structure and that means at the end of the day the prime minister has to be a strong figure — somebody’s who’s able to hold the country together.”