Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, about developments in Iraq.
The Islamic State group's militant takeover of the Iraqi city of Ramadi last Sunday marked a significant blow to the fight against the group in the Middle East. Coupled with the loss of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra to IS forces days later, there has been concern among analysts that the current U.S.-led coalition's strategy of airstrikes against IS and efforts to rebuild Iraq's army isn't effective in stopping insurgent advances.
Ramadi's citizens now face atrocities under the extremist group and further conflict as Iranian-backed Shiite militias attempt to dislodge the extremists. After the city's loss, many politicians and power groups within Iraq have criticized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's rule. Abadi had promised an offensive against the Islamic State group in Iraq's largest province of Anbar in early April, but lost Anbar's capital of Ramadi after security forces collapsed.
The WorldPost spoke with Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, to discuss some of the political issues facing Iraq after Ramadi's fall.
Ramadi fell after a three-day advance. How were the extremist fighters able to do this and what does that say about the current state of Iraqi forces?
The fall of Ramadi was a shock not in the sense that it wasn’t likely to happen, but that a few of us analysts assumed that some lessons from the fall of Mosul about how ISIS operates had been learned. That the Iraqi government, the U.S. and others had understood that preventing the fall of Ramadi was a priority, and that the strategy and tactics and resources were all in line with that objective.
In March and April, when Tikrit fell back into the hands of the Iraqi government and the militias, ISIS showed its face within days in Ramadi, proving how agile and opportunistic the group remains even when faced with setbacks.
The fall of Ramadi basically echoes the fall of Mosul. You had ISIS developing then activating sleeper cells, then deploying suicide bombers and fighters very quickly. In addition, the leadership of the Iraqi security forces was weak and divided: elite soldiers were few and exhausted, Sunni fighters demoralized, the police ran away.
Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the Sunni communities in Iraq were very disenfranchised. Has the new leader, Abadi, been different?
There has been a change in tone and in how he did business. Abadi has proven a lot more sensitive and responsive to the Sunni community, which actually led to allegations within the Shia community that he was too soft on them.
Ironically, Abadi’s attempt to be inclusive may have weakened rather than strengthened him. Now there’s a challenge to him not only from Maliki but also from militia commanders who think he’s too soft and don’t like his proximity to and reliance on the U.S.
These [militia commanders] are closer to the Iranians and they caused divisions that played out in the takeover of Tikrit. These are likely to play out again now in Ramadi and will have an impact on what happens next in Anbar province.
In Tikrit there was a large reliance on the Iranian-backed Shiite militias -- the popular mobilization units -- and seemingly now in Ramadi that’s happening again. What are the potential risks of that reliance?
These militias are extremely controversial. They have allowed an amount of sectarian cleansing against Sunni communities east and south of Baghdad, and even in Baghdad. But they are also effective, dedicated and relatively well organized. Their ties with Iran vary considerably.
The problem with these militias that operate technically under the [Iraqi] government is that the many anti-ISIS Sunni groups feel in comparison abandoned by both the Iraqi and U.S. governments. The Iraqi government is [worried] about supporting them because they fear that these groups will either sell their weapons to ISIS or align with ISIS or resist the government in a post-ISIS phase.
This means that in turn those groups feel that they’re spilling their blood against ISIS with no support, and they’re basically the cannon fodder. There’s a lot of resentment here and there’s a lot of concern that the United States, because it is pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran, is unwilling to challenge the Iranians in Iraq and elsewhere.
Do you think that’s a legitimate accusation?
I wouldn’t say it’s an accusation. I think that the United States has prioritized the Iranian nuclear deal and doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize a deal before it is finalized. That has had an impact in Syria, in Lebanon and in Iraq on U.S. policy.
In terms of Prime Minister Abadi, how embattled or criticized is his government after the fall of Ramadi?
He’s been weakened by the fall of Ramadi, that’s undeniable. He initially agreed with the United States that Shiite militias should not be deployed in Anbar too early for fear this would alienate the local population. So these Shiite militias are now saying his decision led to the fall of Ramadi.
Then he’s also accused by Sunnis of not having armed them and supported them enough in the fight against ISIS. His own competence in reforming the Iraqi army is also coming under attack, so this is a pretty difficult moment for the prime minister.
All these accusations are partly valid and partly exaggerated. He’s been trying to play this very delicate balancing game for a year now with pretty inadequate tools and with a variety of actors with very divergent interests.
He doesn’t have that many allies in Baghdad; he was a consensus candidate for prime minister but he was never a strongman -- it’s not in his character. What made him appealing and worked for him a year ago now seems to work in his disfavor.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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