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Winners and losers in Iraq’s struggle for supremacy

Iraq can be a brutal place, both on and off the battlefield. There has been continued wrangling for control of the most powerful government positions, with three senior posts — defense, interior and finance — remaining empty for six months.
 
Two key figures were forced out last year at the worst possible moment: Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari was trying to negotiate a major IMF deal; while Defense Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi was preparing the assault against Mosul. Zebari and Al-Obeidi were appointed in 2014 as trusted safe hands, but fell on their swords in 2016 after being hounded by mismanagement allegations from powerful factions.
 
When he entered the Finance Ministry in 2014, Zebari was astonished to find that billions of dollars had simply vanished. Al-Obeidi was brought in to restore the army’s prestige. Corruption was a major factor in the 2014 fall of Mosul and the disintegration of the Iraqi Army. The 50,000 “ghost soldiers” which Al-Obeidi discovered were simply the tip of the iceberg. Senior army positions under former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki had been a route to amassing vast wealth through corrupt accounting and extortion.
 
In a governing system second only to Lebanon in endless delays appointing ministers, the Defense Ministry has just been given to Sunni politician Erfan Al-Hiyali, while the finance portfolio remains vacant.
 
Iraq’s Interior Ministry has been dominated by the Badr Brigades since 2005; becoming synonymous with secret prisons, sectarian death squads and routine torture. Yet another Badr MP, Qassim Al-Araji has just been given the keys to this ministry. It comes as a surprise to find that another new appointee — Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq, Al-Quds Force commander Iraj Masjedi — has an almost identical career path to Al-Araji.
 
Both Al-Araji and Masjedi spent two decades after 1979 under the command of the Iranian Republican Guard. The Badr Brigades were established and directed by the Al-Quds Force. Qassim Al-Araji — the minister who has just been appointed to enforce the law — was detained twice by the Americans after 2003 for insurgent activities.
 
Ambassador Masjedi is blunt about Iran’s foreign policy priorities: “Fighting in Syria and Iraq deepens the Islamic (Republic’s) security and defends our borders… Aleppo, Fallujah and other areas of Syria and Iraq are the front lines of the Islamic resistance front,” he has said.
 
The leaders of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, as well as the head of Al-Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, hail from this same clique, which spent over 35 years fighting alongside each other.
 
Political hegemony
 
They are using their dominant position to transform the Hashd’s military prominence into political hegemony. Ahead of upcoming provincial and national elections an immense media campaign is portraying the Hashd as saviors of Iraq, while using tactics like mass displacement of civilians to eliminate those who may vote against them. In a more uncertain international environment, those affiliated with the Hashd and Iran need to portray their control over the levers of power in Iraq as a fait accompli.
 
Iraq today is under the control of a paramilitary clique every bit as narrow and brutal as the gang that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Baria Alamuddin
 
The Trump presidency poses new challenges for Iranian proxies. The US’ desertion of the Syrian rebels empowers the pro-Iran axis, while the Trump-backed travel ban undermines America’s role against Daesh. However, the tougher approach following Iran’s recent missile test, including sanctions and the threat of further action, has put Tehran on the back foot.
 
The claim of Hashd military superiority is a myth. The mobilization of Hashd volunteers provided much-needed capacity as the army disintegrated under Daesh’s onslaught. However, when Hashd militias were deployed to retake urban areas, they proved worse than useless. After weeks of costly stalemate in Baiji and Tikrit, the Hashd was removed from the battlefield. Conventional forces succeeded in doing in a couple of days what the Hashd failed to achieve in months.
 
Human rights abuses
 
The Hashd has now been deployed to isolated areas west of Mosul, while elite forces like the Golden Division do the real fighting. Whenever Hashd fighters have been allowed near population centers, they perpetrated terrible atrocities.
 
Another myth asserts that Hashd militias commit abuses because they are undisciplined; yet even American commanders testify to how obedient Hashd fighters are. Across Iraq Hashd militias destroyed thousands of homes; summarily executed and forcibly disappeared thousands of young men; and perpetrated abuses against thousands of displaced citizens. The Hashd’s human rights violations are systematic and well-planned, perpetrated by disciplined forces doing what they are told.
 
The worst abuses occur in demographically mixed areas where the displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens will impact election results. Sectarian cleansing is being employed to consolidate political power.
 
Iraq today is under the control of a paramilitary clique every bit as narrow and brutal as the gang that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein. When most components of Iraqi society find themselves excluded and marginalized, the potential for conflict is obvious.
There must be urgent efforts to rescue the vision for an inclusive Iraqi state before these efforts to achieve hegemony end up in tragedy.
 
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.