What’s Next for Anbar?

Last year Israeli journalist and filmmaker Itai Anghel traveled to both Syria and Iraq. There he showed us the Kurds of Iraq and Syria who are fighting the notorious Islamic State group (Daesh) and also some of the members of Daesh they had succeeded in taking prisoner. Anghel filmed these prisoners recounting the grotesque atrocities they had carried out on innocent people. One explained, without displaying even a slight tincture of compunction nor remorse, how, when cutting the head off one of his victims, he purposely made sure the knife he “used was blunt so he’d suffer more.”

Journalist Itai Anghel interviews a Daesh POW as part of his 2014 documentary.
Journalist Itai Anghel interviews a Daesh POW as part of his 2014 documentary.

Anghel’s documentary then points out something quite chilling in its ending. These prisoners, these ruthless mass-murdering sadists, could be released and return to committing more atrocities in a future prisoner swap. A truly horrifying thought to even begin contemplating.

One was reminded of those parts of that documentary when reading Aki Peritz’s piece in Slate which discussed the implications of the fact that the Shi’ite militias which drove Daesh out of Tikrit in April did not take any of their enemies prisoner. Peritz deduces from this that these Shi’ite militias are likely killing all of the enemy forces and argues that such a merciless approach against a merciless enemy is destined to prolong the war and increase the number of atrocities unnecessarily for the numerous reasons which he outlines.

It has also been argued widely, including by this scribbler, that it would be better if Daesh were removed from the Sunni-majority Iraqi provinces, of Anbar and Nineveh respectively, by the secular military state force that is the Iraqi Army. Which, while predominantly Shi’ite (which is simply the case since Iraq, after all, is a Shia-majority country), isn’t an exclusively Shi’ite sectarian fighting force like, say, the Katiab Hizbollah or the Badr Organization and other such armed paramilitary groups presently fighting under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units.

Member of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi back in 2008.
Member of Iraqi security forces in Ramadi back in 2008.

One thought it was wise, and very responsible and sober-minded, of Ayatollah Ali Sistani to call upon Iraq’s Shia to join the state military and security forces to help combat Daesh, not these sectarian militia forces. However, as we saw in Mosul last June and Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi in recent days (a defeat which Vox correctly dubbed Daesh’s “biggest victory in Iraq in almost a year”), the Iraqi Army and security forces have proven to be largely inefficient when it comes to thoroughly combating Daesh. As one police colonel who fled Daesh’s recent takeover of Ramadi told The Guardian, “The army don’t have the fighting spirit. They were waiting for ISIS to attack. They are poorly equipped comparing to ISIS. We are fighting with guns and pistols while ISIS have Humvees and IED’s and suicide bombers.”

The Shia militias however do not readily retreat and are committed to either killing their enemy or being killed by them in battle. They may be ruthless but they are capable and determined fighters. They may be the only military forces on the ground in Iraq who can, in the coming days, and possibly weeks, force Daesh out of Ramadi and subsequently take the lead in digging them out of the rest of Anbar also.

But can the Iraqi government convince Sunni tribal elements in Anbar that these militias have their best interests at heart and are there simply in order to help them recuperate control over their homeland?

Many of those Sunni tribesmen were, remember, disallowed entry into the security forces under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Hundreds of whom, poorly armed and organized, have been murdered by Daesh in recent months.

U.S.-made Humvees being used by Shia militias against Daesh in Tikrit.
U.S.-made Humvees being used by Shia militias against Daesh in Tikrit.

Furthermore, how would the Americans respond? Would Washington go along with backing Shi’ite militias which are very close to Iran? Which is, of course, a country that is unwelcome in the anti-Daesh coalition U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assembled last year. Remember during the fight for Tikrit last April those Shia militias withdrew in protest after the United States began bombing Daesh there. A clear indication of their reluctance to work with, or be seen working with, the U.S., even if it is only to defeat a common enemy.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has had to play a delicate balancing act in recent months. The Shia militias are suspicious of the United States and wish to fight this fight on their own and on their own terms. But at the same time Abadi does not want to alienate the United States.

So you see, the solution to the ongoing crisis and turmoil in Anbar is going to be anything but a simple one for Iraq to overcome.

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