What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq

Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the Shiite paramilitary network which emerged during the fight against Daesh, is a formidable force integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. (AFP)
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Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the Shiite paramilitary network which emerged during the fight against Daesh, is a formidable force integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. (AFP)
Iraqis take part in an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the southern city of Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
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Iraqis take part in an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the southern city of Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
Iraqi youths watch an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
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Iraqi youths watch an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)
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Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)
A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)
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A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)
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Updated 22 August 2021

What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq

What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq
  • The swift demise of the Kabul government has raised the specter of similar power grabs in fragile Middle East states
  • Analysts believe Iran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi will not benefit further from toppling the Baghdad government 

IRBIL, Iraq: It is perhaps just a matter of time before the volatile states of the Middle East begin to feel the reverberations of the Taliban’s swift conquest of almost all of Afghanistan. The implications of the Sunni Islamist group’s triumph will not be lost on non-state actors and violent extremists active in the countries where the US still has troops.

Afghanistan’s US-trained and equipped military failed to hold the line against the Taliban’s lightning offensive, as city after city fell in rapid succession. The government in Kabul quickly collapsed, paving the way for a second era of Taliban rule, just under 20 years after the end of the first.

The principal lesson other militant groups will likely draw from America’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan is this: If they can hold out long enough against the enemy’s superior technology and firepower, the latter will eventually grow weary and withdraw, leaving its client regimes to crumble.




The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)

If this is the thinking among some Shiite militia leaders in Iraq, who have long demanded the departure of US forces, it can hardly be dismissed as pure fantasy. After all, there is a fairly recent precedent of a swift insurgent offensive quickly overwhelming the Iraqi military.

Daesh was able to conquer a third of Iraq, including its second city Mosul, in the summer of 2014. The Iraqi army, which was much larger and better equipped, withdrew without a fight.

Although Baghdad was able to recapture the bulk of these territories by 2017, with extensive US support, the campaign against Daesh gave rise to a new force, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), which could prove capable of toppling the Iraqi government.

Hashd Al-Shaabi was formed in 2014 to help fight Daesh after the army’s notorious failure to defend Mosul. The umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite militias went on to liberate large swathes of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni regions, and was later incorporated into Iraq’s security apparatus.

However, some of the more powerful factions within the Hashd have long been equipped and financed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to advance Iran’s military and political objectives in the region.

Iraq watchers fear these factions may outgun the regular Iraqi army and morph into a powerful state within a state, resembling Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They have at their disposal large stocks of Iran-supplied surface-to-surface missiles and armed drones, some of which have been used in recent years to attack US military targets within Iraq.

Fortunately for a Baghdad government burdened with the task of balancing the interests of both its American and Iranian patrons, the Biden administration does not look to be in as much of a hurry to withdraw from Iraq as it was from Afghanistan.

Moreover, according to political analysts, there are several major distinctions between the two cases that strongly suggest a Taliban-style takeover in Iraq by pro-Iran militias is probably not on the cards — at least not any time soon.

First and foremost, these factions have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo. “The pro-Iran Hashd factions do not want to take over the government. Their goal is to join the ruling parties and get their cut of the state, both legal and illegal,” Joel Wing, author of the online blog Musings on Iraq, told Arab News.

“They are already an official part of the security forces, which means government funding. They want more fighters on the payroll. They want contracts and graft.”




Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)

Alex Almeida, an Iraq security analyst at energy consultancy Horizon Client Access, is also skeptical that Hashd will attempt a takeover.

“Barring a repeat of 2014, or some sort of militia coup scenario or a siege of the international zone (in Baghdad), it’s highly unlikely we will see a similar situation develop in Iraq, primarily because we would then be dealing with a rogue faction of the Iraqi state rather than an external takeover by an insurgent force,” he said.

Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor at RANE, agrees and points out that many Hashd groups “are integrated into the security forces of Iraq, and not merely outside insurgents” like the Taliban fighters were in Afghanistan.

INNUMBERS

2014 Year Hashd Al-Shaabi was formed. 

40 Groups under Hashd Al-Shaabi umbrella. 

128,000 Strength of Hashd Al-Shaabi. 

“They do not hold territory in the same way the Taliban did in Afghanistan, even if they operate in relatively defined geographic areas,” Baker said. “They have close alliances with elements of the Iraqi parliament.

“In short, at least with many of the larger Hashd groups, they are integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. Thus, they are not necessarily seeking the overthrow of the regime, but rather the assertion of their (and often Iran’s) interests in Iraq.”

Baker is also more confident about the capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces compared with the Afghan security forces, noting that Iraq’s military has “undergone a significant transformation since it largely collapsed amid the early Daesh offensive” in 2014.




Fortunately for Baghdad, the Biden administration does not appear to be in a hurry to withdraw from Iraq. (AFP)

“After that failure, the Iraqis and the US military underwent a significant reform of training and leadership in the Iraqi security forces, and these forces largely proved their mettle several years later in their routing of Daesh from key cities and areas,” he said.

“There is today much more cohesion and sense of common purpose among the Iraqi security forces than there was among the Afghan security forces.”

There is another crucial difference between the current Iraq and (pre-Taliban takeover) Afghanistan situations. It is no secret that Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, has long supported the Taliban, often to the detriment of US strategic objectives.

However, unlike the ISI’s comparatively laissez-faire approach, Baker believes Iran holds its Iraqi militia proxies on a far shorter leash, dictating the limits of their activities.

“Iran’s support of the Hashd groups is much stronger than Pakistan’s support for the Taliban — likely stronger even than Pakistan’s Taliban support in the late 1990s,” Baker said.




A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)

Besides arming and training them, Iranian officials openly meet with elements of Hashd groups in Iraq. “This also may constrain the actions of the larger Hashd groups, as Iran is not necessarily seeking the overthrow of Iraq’s (government), and is definitely not seeking more destabilization,” Baker said.

“Rather, these groups are part of a collection of elements that Iran uses to maintain influence and protect its strategic interests in Iraq.”

Nevertheless, Baghdad should draw some broad lessons from events in Afghanistan to ensure it does not suffer a similar fate as Kabul, analysts say.

“Perhaps the most significant lesson is the importance of rooting out corruption in the government at all levels, and of ensuring cohesion among various ethnic, regional and sectarian groups in the government,” Baker said.

Afghanistan’s lack of internal unity was plain for all to see in the hours before Kabul fell. Several top officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, opted to flee the country, while others sought to negotiate with the approaching Taliban. Others still, such as Ahmad Massoud, armed themselves and headed for the mountains to launch another phase of resistance.

“The lack of cohesion and perception of corruption left many of the Afghan citizenry unable to trust the government. The same could be said about the bureaucracy and security forces,” Baker said.

Perhaps the most critical distinction between the two cases is that the US does not plan a complete withdrawal from Iraq anytime soon.

“The recent US-Iraq talks show that Washington is not planning on withdrawing from Iraq,” Wing said. “Attacks by pro-Tehran factions are complicating that because the Americans are focusing on protecting themselves rather than assisting the Iraqis right now. But even then, there’s no sign they want to end the mission.”




Placards denouncing the Hashd are shown during a demonstration by Iraqi Kurds outside the US consulate in Irbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. (AFP file photo)

Almeida believes the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan “will make the Biden administration a lot more cautious about how it handles the mechanics of a further US withdrawal in Iraq, particularly drawing down to a small diplomatic footprint without in-country military support.”

For his part, Baker thinks the decision to leave Iraq “will be based more on the US strategic realignment of priorities than on the political fallout from the Afghan withdrawal, particularly as Iraq is in a much stronger shape than the Afghan government was.”

“The larger risk for Iraq is long-term regional and sectarian differences, and demands for greater federalism or distribution of power,” he said.

“Economic resources are spread unequally across Iraq, and these geographic differences will continue to shape the future security and stability environment.”

____________

Twitter: @pauliddon


US critics of Israel face challenges in redrawn Congress districts

US critics of Israel face challenges in redrawn Congress districts
Updated 6 sec ago

US critics of Israel face challenges in redrawn Congress districts

US critics of Israel face challenges in redrawn Congress districts
  • Planned changes to district boundaries could affect nine members of Congress who have a record of voicing support on Palestinian issues

CHICAGO: Nine members of Congress who have been vocal critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians could face tougher re-election campaigns as a result of their districts being redrawn, an analysis by Arab News shows.

Every 10 years, the dominant political parties in many states re-draw district boundaries based on demographic data provided by the US Census, which does not count Arab and Muslim Americans as a separate category.

Where population shifts have led to proposed boundary changes, incumbents may be forced to stand in new districts. That’s the challenge facing Illinois representative Marie Newman, who won election in 2020 in the 3rd Congressional District, which has the largest concentration of Palestinian American voters.

Newman has chosen to face-off with Sean Casten, who is very strong on climate change, in the new 6th District rather than stand against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is one of only two Hispanic congress members in Illinois, in the 4th District. Casten is a strong supporter of Israel and silent on Israeli violence against Palestinians, while Garcia has often joined Newman to support pro-Palestinian legislation, including voting against a bill giving Israel $1 billion for its Iron Dome defense system last September.

“Rep. Newman was supportive of the push to create a second congressional district of Latino influence and understood that doing so would mean the need to shift boundary lines of existing CDs in the Chicagoland area,” Newman campaign spokesperson Ben Hardin said.

Describing the challenges as “inevitable,” Hardin said: “Representative Newman is grateful … to have the support of so many people here in Chicago’s southwest side and in the south and west suburbs, including a strong coalition of supporters from the Arab and Muslim American community.”

The new Illinois district map was approved by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, one of Israel’s strongest advocates, in November. Pritzker aroused anger among Arab Americans after refusing to apologize for disparaging remarks he made in a 1998 congressional race in which he accused a rival of accepting money from a Muslim group that Pritzker asserted supported terrorists.

“There is no doubt that the Illinois Democrats are seeking to undermine Newman, who has been a vocal supporter of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim rights,” said Hassan Nijem, the president of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.

“She and Chuy Garcia are the only Illinois Democrats to defend Palestinian rights and recognize our growing community.”

The Illinois primary has been delayed from March until June 28, 2022, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to Newman and Garcia, seven other members of Congress who voted against the Iron Dome money could be affected by district changes.

They include Cori Bush of Missouri; André Carson of Indiana; Raúl Grijalva of Arizona; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a Republican Congressman who consistently votes against all foreign aid regardless of the recipient.

Tlaib, Pressley and Omar are members of the “Squad,” a group of progressive Democrats that includes New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead of voting against the Iron Dome funding, however, AOC voted “present” not taking a position.

In Michigan, which is holding its primary on Aug. 2 next year, mapmakers are proposing to re-draw Tlaib’s 13th district, increasing the number of African American voters. That could be important even though Tlaib defeated several African American candidates when she first ran and won office in the predominantly African American district in 2018.

Tlaib may be forced into a new district against pro-Arab Democrat Debbie Dingell. However, she could survive as the Michigan process puts remapping in the hands of an independent commission rather than partisan politicians. The final Michigan remap might not be completed until late January.

Also in Michigan, proposed changes would pit Jewish Democratic Congressman Andy Levin, who has been an outspoken supporter of the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, against Brenda Lawrence.

Minnesota congressional remapping plans have targeted Omar and another pro-Palestinian Congresswoman, Betty McCollum, although maps in those districts have not been finalized.


Israeli agents convinced Iranian scientists to blow up their own nuclear facilities

Israeli agents convinced Iranian scientists to blow up their own nuclear facilities
Updated 03 December 2021

Israeli agents convinced Iranian scientists to blow up their own nuclear facilities

Israeli agents convinced Iranian scientists to blow up their own nuclear facilities
  • They posed as Iranian dissidents and smuggled bombs into the Natanz facility disguised as food
  • Israel had pledged to never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons

LONDON: Agents from the Mossad convinced Iranian scientists to blow up their own nuclear facilities by “posing as dissidents” and smuggling explosives disguised as food into facilities, according to reports.

According to The Jewish Chronicle, Israeli agents convinced up to 10 scientists to destroy the Natanz nuclear facility, wiping out 90 percent of its centrifuges – crucial for research into nuclear weapons.

They are said to have smuggled some explosives into the plant in food lorries, while others were dropped in via drones and picked up by scientists – who they convinced to use against the nuclear sites by posing as Iranian dissidents.

The attack on the facility is just one of a long line of Israeli sabotages of Iranian nuclear facilities, a strategy that they have engaged in more as Iranian nuclear research has progressed.

The Natanz facility, a critical nuclear research site, has been hit by at least three attacks linked to the Israeli secret service, the Mossad.

In another incident, agents used a quadcopter drone to fire missiles at the Iran Centrifuge Technology Company in an attempt to disrupt its research.

In recent years, following the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Iran has increased its atomic energy research, including enriching growing quantities of uranium above the levels required for civilian nuclear activity such as energy production.

In April Iran said that it would start enriching uranium up to 60 percent after the attack on its Natanz plant which it blamed on Israel – that is closing in on the 90 to 95 percent enrichment required for nuclear weapons.

This week – much to the ire of Israel – Iran and the US returned to the negotiating table to try to find a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for relief from crushing economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US and its allies.

But on Thursday, Israeli officials called on the US directly to cease those negotiations.

In a phone call with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for “concrete measures” to be taken against Iran.

He said that Tehran was carrying out “nuclear blackmail” as a negotiation tactic and that “this must be met with an immediate cessation of negotiations and by concrete steps taken by the major powers,” according to a statement released by his office.

The Israeli leader also expressed his concern about a new report from the UN, issued during the US-Iran talks in Vienna, which showed that Iran had “started the process of enriching uranium to the level of 20 percent purity with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo underground facility.”

Israel, the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, has pledged never to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.


Lebanon information minister resigns

Lebanon information minister resigns
Updated 03 December 2021

Lebanon information minister resigns

Lebanon information minister resigns

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Information Minister George Kordahi has officialy submitted his resignation on Friday to “give Lebanon a chance.”
“I will resign this afternoon,” Kordahi earlier told AFP. “I do not want to cling to this position, if it can be useful, I want to give Lebanon a chance.”
An official at the presidency confirmed to AFP that President Michel Aoun had received a call from Kordahi confirming he would submit his resignation.


UAE, France sign $18 bilion deal for 80 Rafale jets as Macron starts Gulf tour

UAE, France sign $18 bilion deal for 80 Rafale jets as Macron starts Gulf tour
Updated 03 December 2021

UAE, France sign $18 bilion deal for 80 Rafale jets as Macron starts Gulf tour

UAE, France sign $18 bilion deal for 80 Rafale jets as Macron starts Gulf tour
  • Macron arrived in the early hours of Friday for a brief Gulf tour where he will also visit Qatar

DUBAI: French President Emmanuel Macron met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on Friday at the start of a two-day Gulf tour that saw France sell the UAE 80 French-made Rafale warplanes for $18.08 billion (€16 billion). 
France’s Defense Minister said the deal was France’s largest-ever weapons contract for export while the Minister for the Armed Forces hailed the deal as "historic."

There was no immediate confirmation of the deal from Emirati officials. Macron was greeted at the leadership pavilion at Dubai’s Expo site for talks with Sheikh Mohammed, known as “MBZ."
“I don’t want to reveal the Christmas present” before the meeting, UAE presidential adviser Anwar Gargash told journalists in the build-up to the talks in Dubai.
Macron arrived in the early hours of Friday for a brief Gulf tour where he will also visit Qatar, host of next year’s World Cup, before traveling to Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
The UAE, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Thursday, is expected to order dozens of Rafale jets to replace its Mirage 2000 aircraft acquired in the late 1990s.
The Emirates is the fifth biggest customer for the French defense industry with $5.31 billion (€4.7 billion) from 2011-2020, according to a parliamentary report.
Macron is accompanied by a large delegation in Dubai including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Defense Minister Florence Parly.


Saudi Arabia calls on Syria to comply with chemical weapons watchdog

Saudi Arabia calls on Syria to comply with chemical weapons watchdog
Updated 03 December 2021

Saudi Arabia calls on Syria to comply with chemical weapons watchdog

Saudi Arabia calls on Syria to comply with chemical weapons watchdog

LONDON: Saudi Arabia has urged Syrian authorities to cooperate with the chemical weapons watchdog and implement all decisions related to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The Kingdom’s position on the matter was reiterated by the Saudi permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ziyad Al-Attiyah.

He said: “The use of chemical weapons and toxic chemicals as weapons anywhere by any person and under any circumstances is reprehensible and completely contradicts the provisions of the convention and the legal rules and standards of the international community.”

His comments came during the 26th session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention on Thursday in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Al-Attiyah also highlighted the importance his country attached to implementing its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, believing in its objectives, and based on its consistent policy to strengthen cooperation to ban weapons of mass destruction and prevent their spread.

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia was keen to help free the Middle East of all WMDs, a move that would increase international peace and security.

Al-Attiyah thanked the organization’s director general, Fernando Arias, for his efforts toward the cause, adding that the Kingdom would be supporting his reappointment for a second term.