Editor’s Piece: Obama’s Iraqi gamble

Obama speaks to Iranian President Rouhani during a phone call (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

On Monday 21st October, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi succeeded in forming a complete government after a delay of over one month as a result of disagreements over appointments to the Defence and Interior ministries. Mohammed Salem Ghabban was appointed as Interior minister whilst Khaled al-Obeidi was given the post of Defence Minister. These two ministries were previously the subject of intense negotiations and struggle between the different sectarian factions as the Americans sought to limit Iran’s expanding influence in the region, after succeeding in dislodging Maliki. The news was greeted with much relief from the outside world, at least publicly.

According to the prevalent narrative, the government is a success as Abadi has successfully split the two ministries between the Shia and Sunni sects, suggesting an inclusive government and signalling a united front to combat the threat of ISIL. The appointment of Khaled al-Obeidi, who hails from Mosul and was an engineer in the army under Saddam Hussein’s regime, is an astute move by Abadi to encourage the marginalised Sunni groups to enter into reconciliation with the central government.

In reality however, these appointments are symbolic of a much deeper proxy war between the US and Iran. Instead of unity, they reflect the US’s growing inability to effectively tackle Iran’s extensive influence over the Iraqi government. Abadi initially delayed the appointments to these two positions as a result of the US’s vehement opposition to the appointment of Hadi Al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Brigade, to one of the two posts. Iran moved swiftly to unite the Shia parties behind Amiri whilst the US failed to persuade the Sunni factions to overcome their own in-fighting and unite behind a single candidate. The US therefore pressed Abadi personally to delay the appointments which led to one month of analysing and assessing the strategy on Iraq.

In light of the above, Ghabban’s appointment runs counter to US interests. Ghabban is a member of the Badr Brigade of which Amiri himself is the leader. Furthermore, Ghabban’s appointment as the interior minister in particular has wider implications. Ghabban inherits a behemoth of a ministry as opposed to the weak Defence Ministry that Obeidi will preside over. During Prime Minister Maliki’s decade long rule, the interior ministry and its security apparatus were heavily invested in and strengthened at the expense of the army to act as a counterweight and prevent any possibility of a coup. As Maliki relied on Iran for support, this naturally meant that Iran developed a powerful influence over the security apparatus, creating an environment in which the rampant militias prevalent today could thrive (Iran’s influence over the militias was epitomised in 2006 when it summoned Moqtada Sadr of the Mahdi army to Tehran and ordered him to end his war with Maliki and return to the government, which was about to collapse as a result of his withdrawal).

This means that instead of acting to rein in the militias, Ghabban essentially reflects their growing dominance and the inability of the government to impose itself on them. More worryingly is that the participation of a member of a militia in the government, and serving as interior minister, means that they are now in a position to provide cover for the transgressions being committed by other militias (as was the case under Maliki). These fears are grounded in Amnesty’s recent report highlighting the killing and kidnapping of Sunnis by the militias in revenge over their apparent support for ISIL and the inability, or unwillingness, of the security forces to tackle this.

The contrasting weakness of the Defence Ministry that oversees the Iraqi army is reflected in their inability to stem ISIL’s rapid expansion. After a series of setbacks, the militias have now risen to the fore in the fight against ISIL with local sources in Anbar revealing to the International Interest that the fight against the ISIL siege is being led by Iran and militias; not the army. The militias are better equipped and possess greater organisation as a result of liaising with the Iranian Quds force.

Given this reality, the US has decided to take a gamble on the weak Defence Ministry. Sources close to the decision-making process revealed to the International Interest that the Interior Ministry was first offered to Obeidi and the Sunni factions who refused the post because of the Shia dominated security apparatus. Instead, Obeidi and the Sunni factions requested the Defence Ministry at the behest of the US administration. The reasoning is that the US plans to invest and equip the Iraqi army to create a counterweight to the Iraqi security apparatus. The US have also pushed Abadi to create a ‘National Guard’ from the militias in order to rein them in; something Iran vehemently opposes.

Obama today announced that he would send 1500 troops to Iraq to boost the army’s capabilities. At the same time however, Abadi has found difficulty in pushing though his National Guard project as a result of Iranian and militia opposition. What these appointments demonstrate is that there is an international tug-of-war over the future of Iraq and as ISIL expand and grow as a threat, the future of Iraq looks increasingly uncertain.

Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. He has extensive experience reporting across the Middle East by virtue of having been a television presenter for Almustakillah Television for the past seven years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Follow Sami on Twitter @SALHACHIMI and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SALHACHIMI.