Iran-US tensions threaten fragile stability in Iraq, amid army dismissals and restructuring

Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi pictured in 2016 outside Fallujah, Iraq
Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi pictured in 2016 outside Fallujah, Iraq

Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi was the great Iraqi military hero of the war against Isis, leading the assault on Mosul which recaptured the de facto Isis capital after a nine-month siege in 2017.

But at the weekend he was suddenly removed as the commander of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) shock troops, the elite corps of the Iraqi armed forces, by Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi. He was instead given what the general considered to be a non-job at the Defence Ministry.

Saadi has refused to accept the move against him, and described his new posting as an "insult" and a "punishment". His effective demotion has provoked a wave of popular support for arguably Iraq’s most esteemed general, on the streets as well as on social media. “He won the people’s friendship but the politicians’ hatred,” reads one slogan being shared online; another warns that “there is no longer any room for a patriot in this country.”

His removal is all the more significant because it takes place at a time when there is an intense struggle for influence in Iraq between the US and Iran. This tension is leading to fears, almost certainly exaggerated, that it could escalate into armed conflict.

There is uncertainty over why exactly Saadi was removed: one interpretation for the side-lining is that he was considered to be too close to the Americans by pro-Iran factions, but a more convincing motive may have been his aggressive campaign against corruption in the CTS which had reportedly alienated other senior officers.

The military corruption in CTS took its usual shape in the Iraqi armed forces of money for food and other supplies being diverted into private pockets, soldiers paying kickbacks to avoid fighting in the front line, or being permanently AWOL.

Corruption became more rampant when the CTS recaptured the oil city of Kirkuk from the Kurds on 17 October 2017, after which some CTS officers worked with others in positions of authority to sell oil on the black market.

Some Iraqi commentators agree that Saadi was unfairly treated, but argue that he himself was in the wrong by refusing to accept his orders from the prime minister.

“He made a huge mistake in going on television to denounce the decision,” says Abbas Khadim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

But Khadim, currently in Baghdad, says that it is too crude to analyse all political developments in Iraq as being tied to the Iran-US confrontation.

However, if the simmering tensions do descend into armed conflict then Iraq would be one of the battlefields where it will be fought out, so the final loyalties of the armed forces, regular and irregular, will be of importance.

In addition to the turmoil over Saadi’s dismissal as head of the CTS, there is an ongoing struggle over control of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the paramilitary coalition of largely Shia forces that were raised to fight Isis at the height of their success in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Comprising some 30 different groups with a total of 65,000 to 85,000 fighters, many of the Hashd groups have a history which far predates the ascent of Isis.

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Iraq is once again the battleground for an American proxy war

The Hashd as a whole is to be more closely integrated into the regular armed forces as of 30 September, under a decree issued by the prime minister. This has led to disagreements within the Hashd coalition, which is strongly represented in parliament, as to how far they should give up their autonomy.

The US, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have traditionally seen the Hashd as being Iranian proxies, though this view is incorrect or, at best overly simplistic, according to experts on the movement.

Some groups such as the Kataib Hezbollah openly look to Iran as the leader of resistance to the US, Israel and the Gulf states and says it will attack US bases in Iraq if there is a US-Iran war.

But most of the Hashd has never been a proxy of Iran and its soldiers are paid by the Iraqi state. This money used to go to the leaders of the different armed factions in the coalition, but is now paid directly to their men.

“That makes a big difference,” says one Hashd official, because it means that Hashd fighters will owe their loyalty to the state and be less closely bound to different groups and commanders as their paymasters.

“It is a mistake to think that there is somehow an ‘Iranian Iraq’ and an ‘American Iraq,’ says Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, once seen as under the control of Iran, in an interview with The Independent.

Dr Khadim agrees, saying that Washington’s obsession with the Hashd as being the long arm of Iran is self-fulfilling. He believes that the US has unwisely promoted the Hashd as the biggest problem of the Iraqi government, which it is not true – he says the biggest problem for Iraqis is getting an adequate supply of electricity.

But American pressure to dissolve or otherwise marginalise the Hashd could create a problem similar to those which arose when the US occupation authorities had the disastrous idea of dissolving the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion: “suddenly you had 400,000 angry trained soldiers on the streets.”

Turmoil in the Iraqi security forces, either in the senior ranks of the CTS with the removal of Saadi, or over the future of the Hashd, could open the door to the re-emergence of Isis.

The movement has retreated to its core rural strongholds in Sunni areas and has so far proved unable to launch more than pin-prick attacks. But it is always seeking to exploit divisions among its enemies in order to make a comeback. Iraqi security officials say that it is at its strongest in areas in northern Iraq disputed between the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces.

Without the tens of thousands of experienced Hashd soldiers, government regular forces would be hard pressed to prevent an Isis comeback due to a lack of numbers and well-trained units. Iraq has been largely quiet since the fall of Mosul, but the peace is still fragile.

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