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


Syria intercepts Israeli missile attack: state media

Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
Updated 21 May 2022

Syria intercepts Israeli missile attack: state media

Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
  • Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes there, targeting government positions as well as bases and weapon depots for allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah

DAMASCUS: Syrian air defenses intercepted Israeli missile strikes near Damascus, state media reported on Friday.
“Our air defenses stopped a number of hostile missiles in the airspace of the southern countryside of Damascus,” Syria’s official news agency SANA said.
AFP correspondents in the Syrian capital said they heard very loud noises in the evening.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said that the target of the Israeli strikes were Iranian bases near Damascus.
The latest strike follows one on May 14 that killed five soldiers and another one on April 27 which, according to the Observatory, killed 10 combatants, among them six Syrian soldiers, in the deadliest such raid since the start of 2022.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes there, targeting government positions as well as bases and weapon depots for allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
While Israel rarely comments on individual strikes, it has acknowledged mounting hundreds of them.
The Israeli military has defended them as necessary to prevent its arch-foe Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.
The conflict in Syria has killed nearly half a million people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

 


Tunisia heads for 'new republic' in dialogue without political parties

Tunisia heads for 'new republic' in dialogue without political parties
Updated 20 May 2022

Tunisia heads for 'new republic' in dialogue without political parties

Tunisia heads for 'new republic' in dialogue without political parties
  • On Friday the official gazette announced that law professor Sadeq Belaid would head the newly created "National Consultative Commission for a New Republic"
  • Saied announced in early May the establishment of a long-awaited "national dialogue"

TUNIS: Tunisia's President Kais Saied on Friday appointed a loyalist law professor to head a committee charged with writing a constitution for a "new republic", through a national dialogue that excludes political parties.
On July 25 last year, Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament, sidelining the political parties that have dominated Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
He has since vowed to scrap the country's 2014 constitution and draft a replacement to be put to referendum in July, but has repeatedly inveighed against political parties despite calls for an inclusive dialogue.
On Friday the official gazette announced that law professor Sadeq Belaid would head the newly created "National Consultative Commission for a New Republic", charged with drawing up a draft constitution.
Saied has also created three other committees to focus on socio-economic issues, the judiciary and on national dialogue.
While major organisations including the powerful UGTT trade union confederation are supposed to be involved, no political party is set to take part.
Saied announced in early May the establishment of a long-awaited "national dialogue" -- at the same time attacking the political parties he accuses of having plundered the country.
Since his July power grab, many Tunisians have supported his moves against a political class seen as corrupt, but opponents have labelled his moves a coup and he has faced calls from home and abroad for a dialogue involving all of the country's major actors.


Sandstorms pose serious risk to human health: WMO

People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
Updated 20 May 2022

Sandstorms pose serious risk to human health: WMO

People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
  • The UN agency WMO has warned of the “serious risks” posed by airborne dust

PARIS: Sandstorms have engulfed the Middle East in recent days, in a phenomenon experts warn could proliferate because of climate change, putting human health at grave risk.
At least 4,000 people went to hospitals on Monday for respiratory issues in Iraq where eight sandstorms have blanketed the country since mid-April.
That was on top of the more than 5,000 treated in Iraqi hospitals for similar respiratory ailments earlier this month.
The phenomenon has also smothered Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with more feared in the coming days.
Strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust into the atmosphere, that can then travel hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers.
Sandstorms have affected a total of 150 countries and regions, adversely impacting on the environment, health and the economy, the World Meteorological Organization said.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The UN agency WMO has warned of the ‘serious risks’ posed by airborne dust.

• The fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular ailments.

• They also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.

“It’s a phenomenon that is both local and global, with a stronger intensity in areas of origin,” said Carlos Perez Garcia-Pando, a sand and dust storm expert at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies.
The storms originate in dry or semi-dry regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China.
Other less affected areas include Australia, the Americas and South Africa.
The UN agency WMO has warned of the “serious risks” posed by airborne dust.
The fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular ailments, and also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.
“Dust particle size is a key determinant of potential hazard to human health,” the WMO said.
Small particles that can be smaller than 10 micrometers can often become trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, and as a result it is associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma and pneumonia.
The most at-risk are the oldest and youngest as well as those struggling with respiratory and cardiac problems.
And the most affected are residents in countries regularly battered by sandstorms, unlike in Europe where dust coming from the Sahara is rare, like the incident in March.
Depending on the weather and climate conditions, sand dust can remain in the atmosphere for several days and travel great distances, at times picking up bacteria, pollen, fungi and viruses.
“However, the seriousness is less than with ultrafine particles, for example from road traffic, which can penetrate the brain or the blood system,” says Thomas Bourdrel, a radiologist, researcher at the University of Strasbourg and a member of Air Health Climate collective.
Even if the sand particles are less toxic than particles produced by combustion, their “extreme density during storms causes a fairly significant increase in cardio-respiratory mortality, especially among the most vulnerable,” he said.
With “a concentration of thousands of cubic micrometers in the air, it’s almost unbreathable,” said Garcia-Pando.
The sandstorms’ frequency and intensity could worsen because of climate change, say some scientists.
But the complex phenomenon is “full of uncertainties” and is affected by a cocktail of factors like heat, wind and agricultural practices, Garcia-Pando told AFP.
“In some areas, climate change could reduce the winds that cause storms, but extreme events could persist, even rise,” he said.
With global temperatures rising, it is very likely that more and more parts of the Earth will become drier.
“This year, a significant temperature anomaly was observed in East Africa, in the Middle East, in East Asia, and this drought affects plants, a factor that can increase sandstorms,” the Spanish researcher said.


Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political
Updated 20 May 2022

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political
  • "The enemies mistakenly think the Iranian people will respond to ...the rumours that they spread and lies they tell," Guards commander Hossein Salami said
  • Iranian authorities say the unrest over rising food prices has been fomented by foreign enemies

DUBAI: Thousands of supporters of Iran’s clerical establishment, including 50,000 Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia members, rallied on Friday, state media reported, after protests against rising food prices turned political.
“The enemies mistakenly think the Iranian people will respond to ...the rumors that they spread and lies they tell,” Guards commander Hossein Salami said in televised remarks at the massive rally outside the capital Tehran, which marked a major victory in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Iranian authorities say the unrest over rising food prices has been fomented by foreign enemies. On Friday, state television showed pro-government marchers chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in southwestern cities of Yasuj and Shahr-e Kord, scenes of recent protests.
Iranians took to the streets last week after a cut in food subsidies caused prices to soar by as much as 300 percent for some flour-based staples. The protests quickly turned political, with crowds calling for an end to the Islamic Republic, echoing unrest in 2019 which began over fuel prices hike.
The government acknowledged the protests but described them as small gatherings. State media reported last week the arrests of “dozens of rioters and provocateurs.”
Authorities have also arrested a number of labor union and rights activists, accusing them of contacts with foreigners, a leading rights group said on Friday.
“The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
Iran’s state television on Tuesday showed what it described as details of the arrest of two French citizens earlier this month, saying they were spies who had sought to stir up unrest.
France has condemned their detention as baseless and demanded their immediate release, in an incident likely to complicate ties between the countries as wider talks stall on reviving a nuclear deal.
In recent months, teachers across Iran have staged protests demanding better wages and working conditions. Dozens have been arrested.
Social media users inside Iran say Internet services have been disrupted since last week, seen as an apparent effort by authorities to stop use of social media to organize rallies and disseminate videos. Iranian officials denied any disruption to Internet access.


Lebanon unlikely to comply with Interpol request to hand Carlos Ghosn over to French authorities

Carlos Ghosn. (Reuters)
Carlos Ghosn. (Reuters)
Updated 20 May 2022

Lebanon unlikely to comply with Interpol request to hand Carlos Ghosn over to French authorities

Carlos Ghosn. (Reuters)
  • Red notice received for tycoon as prosecutors investigate millions of dollars in alleged suspect payments

BEIRUT: Lebanon has received an Interpol red notice for the arrest of businessman Carlos Ghosn at France’s request but is unlikely to extradite him, according to a judicial source.

The 68-year-old car industry tycoon, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship, fled to Lebanon in December 2019 while awaiting trial in Japan. He had been under house arrest since 2018.

The Lebanese judiciary received the notice on Thursday. It is based on an international arrest warrant issued by the French authorities about a month ago.

A judicial source told Arab News that Lebanon’s prosecutor general, Judge Ghassan Oueidat, received the warrant based on hearings held by a delegation of French judges who visited Lebanon for the first time in June 2021. They listened to Ghosn over the course of four days in regard to a lawsuit filed against him in Paris.

BACKGROUND

The former head of the Nissan-Renault alliance fled to Lebanon in 2019, while out on bail facing financial misconduct charges in Japan.

Ghosn was chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi and CEO of Renault when he was arrested in 2018 on charges of “not disclosing his full wages and using company funds for personal purposes.”

France accuses him of being responsible for “over €15 million ($15.8 million) in suspicious payments between his Renault-Nissan alliance and activities Ghosn held at the opulent Palace of Versailles, including knowingly using company resources to host a party for personal purposes.”

The source added that Judge Oueidat was expected to refer the Interpol notice to the discriminatory attorney general, Judge Imad Qabalan, who attended the hearings of the French judicial delegation with Ghosn.

Based on the notice, Judge Qabalan may interrogate Ghosn and decide whether he should be arrested, the source said.

“If Judge Qabalan finds Ghosn guilty of any crime, he can request his full file from the French authorities and try him in Lebanon under the Lebanese Penal Code,” the person added.

“In the event that the crimes charged against Ghosn are not mentioned in the penal code, or if they are charges that the Lebanese penal code does not criminalize, he will leave him be.”

The source said that although Lebanon and France had an extradition treaty, Ghosn would be prosecuted in Lebanon as he had Lebanese nationality, adding that Lebanon had banned the executive from traveling.

Lebanon confiscated Ghosn’s passports in 2020 and he has not submitted a request to get them back.

The tycoon made his escape from Japan by hiding in luggage on a private plane that took off from Kansai International Airport. He has been in Lebanon ever since and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

An American father and son helped Ghosn flee Japan. The US handed them over to Japanese authorities and they confessed in a Tokyo court that they had been paid $1.3 million to do so. They face a prison sentence of up to three years.

Meanwhile, Lebanese judicial authorities on Thursday released 72-year-old Ziad Taqi Al-Din, whose name had been linked to lawsuits related to charges of fraud and forgery filed in Paris against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Taqi Al-Din, who has dual Lebanese and French nationality, was arrested in Beirut in 2020 based on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol. He was later released on bond with a travel ban and his passport was confiscated.

The Lebanese judiciary requested his file from Paris for trial in Beirut, refusing to hand him over to the French judiciary.