Caabu Parliamentary briefing on Iraq after Isis with Hayder al-Khoei

On 27 January, Caabu hosted a briefing in Parliament with Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa programme, titled ‘Iraq After ISIS: Iranian influence and Shia militancy?’

The event was chaired by SNP MP John Nicolson, a former journalist who worked for the BBC and ITV. He recalled his experience reporting from Iraq in the run up to the first Gulf War. He was travelling back from Baghdad with former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath and the 'human shield' hostages who had just been released. Nicolson also came on a Caabu/ Medical Aid for Palestinians delegation to Palestine in September 2015.

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Hayder al-Khoei set out his briefing by referring to the watershed moment in the summer of 2014 when Iraqi armed forces collapsed in the face of the Isis military offensive on Mosul. His talk would explain how Iraq reached this security crisis, in which over the last two years almost 20,000 civilians have been killed.

Khoei juxtaposed the lack of US assistance in light of the fall of Mosul in 2014 with that of Iran, who, within 24 hours, significantly reinforced Baghdad security and in the process made themselves indispensible to the Iraqi government.  He pointed to the elusive nature of the US-Iranian relationship in Iraq, which some analysts view as ‘coordinated de-confliction’. Khoei argued that the US-Iran relationship in Iraq has moved beyond mere ‘deconfliction’ towards coorporation since 2014 in matters concerning Isis, and was key to the liberation of the city of Tikrit. Following the success of the nuclear deal, this will likely continue being the case.

Providing some context to Shia militia groups in Iraq, he described how they first emerged in opposition to the sectarian policies of the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath regime in the 70s. After many were forced into exile in neighboring Iran, they resurfaced again following the 2003 US-led invasion. Having fought Saddam Hussein’s regime, al-Qaeda in Iraq after 2003, as well as Isis and Assad’s other enemies in Syria more recently, they are extremely experienced fighters. They are also large in size, thought to currently number between 50,000-120,000 men, which is almost the same size as the Iraqi army itself. As such, they are both a security asset against groups such as Isis as well as a potential security challenge in any post-Isis Iraq. It is also important to note that they are in no way monolithic, divided on questions such as their affiliation with Iran and relationship with the Iraqi state.

Khoei described March 2008 as a ‘gamechanger’, in which former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki tackled some of these militias directly. This coincided with a US-led surge against Sunni jihadist forces which left them on the brink of extinction.  However, Khoei argued that certain key events transpired in 2011 which proved a toxic mix and help to explain how these forces came to reemerge and fill a security vacuum. Following the 2011 US withdrawal, Maliki asserted authority against Sunni communities with heavy-handed security measures. These included collective arrests and punishments and were a key to radicalisation, pushing many into the hands of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which later became Isis. Alongside this, the wave of uprisings across the Arab world and the neighboring Syrian conflict encouraged many Sunnis to rise up against Maliki and the post-2003 political order. His uncompromising stance and tough security measures towards such protests hardened Sunni positions and made some more susceptible to tolerating or supporting Isis. Until today, Maliki has denied that his heavy handed approach towards Sunnis was a tool for radicalisation.

His policies were not only sectarian in nature. Khoei described how Maliki used divide and conquer tactics against his Shia political rivals. Significantly, he empowered the Badr Brigade and Asa’eb Ahlil Haq, weakening his main rivals Ammar al-Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr. In order to coup-proof the Iraqi Army, Maliki appointed loyal supporters into senior positions and severely weakened the security forces. This helps explain why tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police melted away in the face of the Isis onslaught in June 2014.

Three days after the fall of Mosul, leading cleric Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, to take up arms in the fight against Isis, mirroring widespread calls against the British occupation almost 100 years ago. However, as a result of the state’s lack of capacity to absorb many of the recruits, the established pro-Iranian militias as well as large Shia Islamist parties were able to benefit from the popular response to Sistani’s call.

With regards to the task facing current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Khoei argued that the future of the mobilisation forces, and whether they can be absorbed into the state or will instead seek to challenge it, is fundamental and will determine the very nature Iraq itself. Abadi currently keeps 60% of his security forces in and around Baghdad, suggesting that he is already thinking about possible threats post-Isis. With forces increasingly united in the fight against Isis, there is at least optimism that the group will be defeated sooner or later.  However the internal rivalries and intra-Shia tensions will become more apparent when the Isis threat dissipates.

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The briefing was followed by some questions from the audience. The question of whether Iran is an honest broker was raised, with Khoei declaring that their presence in Iraq is due to their security interests. The Iranians want stability in Iraq, but it is stability on their terms and qualified stability.

On alleviating potential security problems, Khoei did not think that the proposal of a National Guard, forces who would be better equipped than the police but not on the same level as the army, would overcome the political struggle over whether these local forces would be commanded by the provinces or Baghdad. However, Abadi’s efforts to de-sectarianise the Hashd al-Shabi paramilitary committee and increase the quota for Sunni fighters could be an alternative.  

Nicolson raised the Kurdish question and whether further moves have been made towards Kurdish autonomy. Khoei described the attitude in Baghdad as one of ‘good luck, good riddance’, in which they doubt the ability of the Kurds to stand alone.  While Khoei recognised their right to self-determination, he argued that the current Kurdish dependence on Baghdad could be replaced by more dangerous dependence on Turkey. More fundamentally, Iran would strongly oppose Kurdish independence in Iraq. A Kurdish speaker present at the event responded by claiming that the Iraqi Kurds have reached out to Baghdad numerous times since 2003 calling for more power sharing but to little avail.

Asked whether Iraq’s borders, created almost 100 years ago by the British and French, are still viable, Khoei argued that the alternative would be far worse, noting that Iraq is not divided neatly between its Sunni and Shia population, with Baghdad itself very mixed for instance. There will be a re-ordering of politics inside Syria and Iraq, but the internationally-recognised borders will survive.

John McHugo, a Caabu board member and author on the Middle East including Syria: a Recent History, asked about the ‘elephant in the room’ Syria, and how Iraqis view the conflict. Khoei responded that Syria has indeed changed everything, with the Iraqi government fearful of losing the Sunni heartlands in western Iraq. Where Shias in Iraq saw a threat from the conflict in Syria, many Sunnis in Iraq saw it as an opportunity.

Regarding the role of Saudi Arabia, Khoei argued that Iraq’s Shia Arabs can play a crucial and unique role in alleviating the toxic tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.   

Lastly on the role of the UK in all of this, Khoei admitted that they flatter themselves into thinking they have much significance on the ground, but did suggest that they could have a constructive role to play in terms of helping to bring together Sunni leadership, currently in tatters. It was also raised that the UK must seek to end its double standards in regards to the region, for instance fighting against Isis while simultaneously supporting the Saudi regime which helps to provide the ideological fuel for such groups.