Still some work to do: The commander of Iraq's ground forces addresses soldiers. (photo: Iraqi MoD)
The Iraqi government declared victory against the extremist Islamic State group in Mosul recently and this was cause for major celebration among Iraqis. However the extremists are far from eradicated in Iraq. Several strongholds remain. But the battle to push the Islamic State, or IS, group out of these places will be more complicated than previous, straight forward fights have been in places like Fallujah and Tikrit.The stalemate between Turkey and Iran in this area poses a serious political challenge for the Iraqi government.
Today the extremists control three towns: Tal Afar, west of Mosul, Hawija, south of Kirkuk, and Al Qaim, west of Anbar. Each fight has its own complicated set of considerations, from political questions to military ones, as well as, in some cases, dangerous foreign policy ramifications.
When the Iraqi military began the fight to push the IS group out of Mosul in October last year, there was a deliberate plan to exclude the Shiite Muslim militias from the campaign. This is because the city of Mosul had a Sunni majority population and there were fears that involving the Shiite Muslim militias, who began as a volunteer force fighting the IS group, would eventually cause problems with Mosul locals, possibly even to the extent that the local population would not support the military.
The Shiite Muslim militias in the area then began to move toward the town of Tal Afar, another IS stronghold. The militias fought in the suburbs around Tal Afar but were warned off entering the town by one of Iraq’s neighbours, Turkey. The Turkish said they were worried that the militias would take revenge on Turkmen living in the town – there were both Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim Turkmen living in Tal Afar before the security crisis and the Sunni Muslim Turkmen who remained, and who would have been at the militias’ mercy, were considered by many to be supporters of the IS group.
There are still Turkish troops in Camp Zilkan east of Bashiqua. Despite protestations from both local and federal officials, the Turkish military have remained there, which means that the threat of them acting against the Shiite Muslim militias also remains. And there are ongoing concerns that the Turkish might try and join in the fighting for Tal Afar.
On July 19, some of the most senior leaders of several of the Shiite Muslim militias – Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr organization, Qais al-Khazali, head of the League of the Righteous militia and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes of Hezbollah in Iraq – met to discuss the matter. The three groups, known for having closer ties to Iran than to the Iraqi government, decided that they did wish to participate in this fight.
The apparent stalemate between Turkey and Iran in this area poses a serious political challenge for the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will need to find a diplomatic solution to resolve an international conflict that could throw the fight against the IS group off course.
“The battle for Tal Afar will be difficult because it is a political fight as well as a military one,” Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP, told NIQASH. “Really all parties should be focusing on a common enemy, the IS group.”
One of the suggested solutions would involve different Shiite Muslim militias coming to fight in Tal Afar. These more moderate militias, including the Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade – often referred to simply as the Abbas Brigades - are known to be more loyal to the Iraqi government rather than Iran. The Abbas Brigades also helped support the Iraqi army’s ninth division in the fight for Mosul.
One of the fighters with the Abbas Brigades, Kathim al-Daraji, says this seems likely. More than 3,000 reservists have been called up and it is likely they will be fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the fight for Tal Afar, he suggests.
In the south of Kirkuk province, the town of Hawija has been dominated by the IS group for the past three years. As yet there have been no military operations launched to push the IS group out of Hawija, due in large part to the complicated political problems in this area between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, the Shiite Muslim militias and the Sunni Muslim community.
Shiite Muslim factions are insisting on taking part in this battle because they wish to protect the Shiite Muslim locals living in villages around Hawija. However the Iraqi Kurdish military have fears that if the Shiite Muslim fighters do take part here, they will also try and stay in the area. Kirkuk is what is known as a disputed territory – that is, the Iraqi Kurdish believe it should be part of their nearby semi-autonomous region but Iraqi Arabs believe it is part of Iraq proper. If the Shiite Muslim Arabs stay in the area afterwards, this dilutes the Kurdish claim on the area.
The unhappy relationship between Baghdad and the leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish region at the moment is also an issue. This has been exacerbated by the Kurds’ intention to hold a referendum on their region’s potential independence from the rest of Iraq. Baghdad has already announced its strong opposition to the idea.
And there is also another problem: The Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in this area are mostly worried that if the Iraqi Kurdish military or the Shiite Muslim militias take part in the battle, then there will unlawful acts of revenge taken on their people here.
“Before the liberation of Hawija, Erbil and Baghdad need to enter into negotiations,” says Khader al-Obaidi, one of the tribal leaders from Hawija, who now lives in the Iraqi Kurdish region. “If they do not come to some arrangement beforehand then Hawija will be under the IS’ control for a long time to come.”
In fact, the government should form new fighting forces out of all of the hundreds of men who have left the northern and central parts of Iraq, who want to fight the IS group, al-Obaidi proposes.
It is highly likely that the fight to expel the IS group from Al Qaim is a long way down the list of battles to come. Tal Afar and Hawija are more likely to happen first. This is because Al Qaim is located on an international border, between Iraq and Syria. Given the geography, Al Qaim is by far the most secure city for the IS group.
Basically the location of the city means that it would require both countries to coordinate in a campaign against the IS group.
The Syrian government is not able to do this at the moment and the Iraqi forces are not ready for this fight either, according to Ibrahim al-Jumaili, a senior officer retired from the Iraqi army.
In February this year the Iraqi government announced that it would start aerial bombing of the area around Al Qaim, in coordination with the Syrian government. However after just a few days the raids stopped, and no explanation was given.
“The most difficult fighting is that taking place on the border and in the large desert areas,” explains al-Jumaili, who served in Iraq’s ground forces during the Iran-Iraq war. “If the Iraqi army pushes the IS fighters out of Al Qaim, they will just go to Abu Kamal [the Syrian town on the other side of the border]. But then they will just come back into Iraq when they want to, because there are no Syrian troops there to stop them,” al-Jumaili argues.
There is also the difficult political situation in Syria to consider, with various actors, including the US and Russia, engaged in their own level of conflict. “The longer it takes to settle the Syrian problem, the longer it will take to liberate Al Qaim and the Iraqi-Syrian border area,” al-Jumaili argues.