Daesh ‘expertise, methods inherited from Iraq army’

Iraqi Army's 53rd Brigade participate in a live ammunition training exercise with coalition forces trainers at Taji military base north of Baghdad, Iraq, in this August 9, 2017 file photo. (REUTERS)
Updated 08 April 2018
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Daesh ‘expertise, methods inherited from Iraq army’

BAGHDAD: As Iraqi forces battled Daesh, former general Abdel Karim Khalaf came to a sad realization — they were fighting against some of his former army comrades.
The tactics Daesh terrorists used — from the way they dug tunnels to their construction of defenses — were lifted straight from the manual of the old Iraqi armed forces under dictator Saddam Hussein.
“They had expertise and methods inherited from the army,” said retired army commander Khalaf. “They knew us.”
When the US-led invasion toppled Saddam 15 years ago in 2003 it splintered Iraqi society and fractured loyalties among those who had served in the country’s armed forces.
One of the first decisions made by Paul Bremmer, the American head of the occupation authority, was to dismantle all security forces in the country.
That controversial move would come back to haunt US-led forces as it pushed many members of Iraq’s disbanded military, police and intelligence agencies to join movements fighting against them.
“Saddam-era military expertise was critical to the development of the insurgency,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute.
The seepage of knowledge from Iraq’s former security forces into the insurgency came to devastating fruition when Daesh stormed across Iraq and northern Syria in 2014.
Among the group’s leadership were veterans of Saddam’s forces who put their training to use conquering territory and running the self-declared “caliphate.”
Former Republican Guard officer Fadel Ahmad Al-Hayali was second-in-command to Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi until he was killed in an October 2015 airstrike near Mosul in northern Iraq, the US has said.
As Baghdadi’s deputy, he was in charge of arms transfers, explosives, vehicles and people between Iraq and Syria. Another veteran was Samir Abd Muhammad Al-Khlifawi, called the group’s “most important strategist” by German weekly Der Spiegel.
Using the nom de guerre Hajji Bakr, the former air force intelligence officer helped devise plans used by the group to take control of northern Syria before he was killed by rebels in 2014.
Hisham Al-Hashemi, an expert on jihadist movements, said these were not isolated examples as Daesh filled its military and security bodies with former Saddam-era officers.
When the government launched its gruelling fight back against Daesh, it too relied on officials from the previous regime.
Key commanders, including the leaders of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism units, were “former soldiers under Saddam” who had been reintegrated into the forces set up after the 2003 invasion, Hashemi said.
With a US-led coalition backing them up in the skies above, Iraqi forces overcame their opponents after a protracted and bloody campaign that saw some of the world’s fiercest urban fighting in decades.
Ultimately the familiarity between the two sides gave Baghdad a key advantage that allowed it to declared victory over Daesh at the end of last year.
“The army won because they knew IS (Daesh) used the methods of Saddam Hussein’s special forces and were able to anticipate their movements,” Hashemi said.
Beating back Daesh has been hailed as a major turning point for Iraqi forces that retreated in disarray when the terrorists first struck in 2014.
The brutal fight was the latest — and most vicious — testing ground for capabilities honed in the 15 years of chaos since the ouster of Saddam.
For former general Khalaf the triumph was also at least in part down to the know-how gleaned by the armed forces back before the US-led invasion turned Iraq on its head.
“Iraqi forces knew the nature of the battle and the geography of the terrain,” he said.
“We understood how the enemy fought, and all of this came from reflexes acquired in the army.”


Trio of favorites to vie for Iraq’s premiership

Updated 22 April 2018
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Trio of favorites to vie for Iraq’s premiership

  • Haddad said: “Abadi remains the single strongest contender but not strong enough to win anything close to a majority.”
  • The paramilitary chief ditched his civilian clothes in favor of military fatigues in 2014, to rally efforts against an ascendant Daesh.
BAGHDAD: An incumbent prime minister, his ousted predecessor and a paramilitary chief instrumental in defeating the Daesh group are the three favorites vying for Iraq’s premiership.
Since Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US-led invasion of 2003, the constitution has vested key powers in the prime minister, a post reserved for the majority Shiite population.
Under a system of checks and balances designed to avoid a return to dictatorship, the winner of the May 12 parliamentary elections will have to form alliances with other Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish lists to secure a majority. Two of the favorites topping the lists were among the architects of victory against Daesh, which in 2014 seized a third of Iraq’s territory in a lightning offensive.
Security crisis
The incumbent prime minister, 66 year-old Haider Abadi, took over the reins from Nuri Al-Maliki in September 2014 at the high watermark of the security crisis.
The fightback which allowed Abadi to declare Iraq’s victory over the jihadists in December, has silenced critics of his lack of military experience.
An engineering graduate and holder of a doctorate from the University of Manchester in Britain, Abadi is from the same Dawa party as his predecessor Maliki.
He owes his position to the support of the Marjaiya, the supreme council of Iraq’s Shiite clerics, and to an international consensus.
“He is acceptable to all foreign stakeholders, from the Iranians, to the Americans (and) the Saudis,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
As the official head of Iraq’s military, Abadi has bolstered morale by drafting in foreign trainers, who have helped professionalize tens of thousands of soldiers.
Under his watch and backed by a US-led international coalition, the army has banished Daesh from all its urban strongholds in Iraq, leaving jihadists largely confined to areas close to the Syrian border.
The Iraqi military has also pushed back the Kurds in the north’s oil-rich Kirkuk province, bolstering Abadi’s status as frontrunner going into the election.
“He has a popular base which transcends confessional and ethnic lines. He offers a narrative as a statesman and he is not tarnished by corruption,” said Iraqi political scientist Essam Al-Fili.
Haddad said: “Abadi remains the single strongest contender but not strong enough to win anything close to a majority.”
His main contender is Hadi Al-Ameri — a leader of Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary network that played a pivotal role in defeating IS.
Ameri comes from Diyala province and is a statistics graduate from Baghdad University. He fled to Iran in 1980 after Saddam executed top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr Al-Sadr.
The 64-year old is widely viewed as Tehran’s favored candidate.
He fought alongside Iranian forces in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988 as part of the Badr organization, and he only returned from exile after Saddam’s ouster. During Maliki’s 2010-2014 term as premier, Ameri was a lawmaker and then transport minister, but he was blocked in a bid to head the Interior Ministry by an American veto.
The paramilitary chief ditched his civilian clothes in favor of military fatigues in 2014, to rally efforts against an ascendant Daesh. At the battlefront, he operated alongside his old friend Qassem Soleimani, who runs the foreign operations wing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
“I think Ameri will have a strong hand in the post-ballot negotiations but that government formation is likely to remain with Dawa and in all likelihood with Abadi,” said Haddad.
Rebuilding Basra
Beyond Ameri’s military credentials, his appeal has been bolstered by Hashed putting its bulldozers to work in rebuilding Basra and the capital’s Sadr City district, exposing the state’s deficiencies.
“With Dawa divided, I think Ameri sees himself as the joker in the pack, as a prime minister who can rebuild the civil state with the same success that he led the military,” said Fili.
The third candidate, 68-year-old Maliki, has been chomping at the bit since he was forced out in 2014, after serving eight years as prime minister.
While still a prominent Dawa leader, he was accused of marginalizing Sunnis and promoting corruption during his tenure.
“He is trying to focus his efforts on areas where the Dawa party is strong and is attempting to get closer to Shiite armed groups to stay in the spotlight,” said Fili.
For Haddad, the former premier’s chances are modest.
“Maliki’s fortunes have taken an irreversible hit. His second term is not remembered well by Iraqis in general.”
“The upper limit of his prospects might be to play second fiddle to Ameri,” Haddad said.