A version of this article appears in the current edition of the Jerusalem Report magazine.
Black smoke was rising from the Qayara oilfelds as the refugees huddled in the shade. They had arrived that morning – from ISIS controlled territory a little further west.
These refugees had come from Jahala village. They were Sunni Arabs. They had elected earlier that day to risk an escape from IS territory across the desert – a route ending in certain death if caught by the jihadis. ‘ISIS have set fire to the oil fields,’ one of them told us. ‘The smoke makes it impossible to breathe. 12 or so people every day need the hospital. It’s impossible to stay.’
So they had set out in the early dawn, just after first light. A convoy of men, women and children. ‘The best time is before the sun rises, when ISIS are sleeping. We used that time to come over.’
Now they were exhausted, grimy, but safe. The Pesh Merga fighters of General Mala Mahdi were quizzing the men, looking for any indications that they might be IS members sent to infiltrate the lines. It appeared that all was well, however. After a while trucks arrived and the families began to load their belongings. Their destination was one of the large refugee camps established by the government of Iraq. There would be little by way of comfort there. But there would be shelter, food, water – and a chance to breathe air not polluted by the black smoke of burning oil.
The act of firing the Qayara oilfields in an area under their own control exemplified the florid insanity with which the name of Islamic State is associated. It provided no substantive benefit to the jihadis themselves, and with a stroke rendered the lives of the civilians in the area unlivable. The result was that Sunni Arabs, like the refugees from Jahala, were forced to seek sanctuary with the Kurdish Pesh Merga. The Sunni Arabs, of course, are the very people in whose name IS wages its jihad. 80 miles south of the city of Mosul, witnessing scenes like this, the issues surrounding the current war between the Islamic State and its enemies can seem fairly stark and simple. But the seeming simplicity is deceptive.
The insanity of Islamic State, and the imperative that it be destroyed, are indeed fairly unambiguous matters. The reduction of the area of IS control, meanwhile, is already an advanced process. The jihadis have lost 50% of their holdings in Iraq, and around 25% in Syria. The city of Mosul is the next, looming target for the enemies of IS. It promises to be a fiercely contested fight. The result, eventually, inevitably, must surely be the defeat of the jihadis. After which, perhaps, the air around Jahala will clear and its unfortunate residents may return home.
Unambiguity, however, ends when one comes to consider the state of affairs among the various forces seeking to carry out the task of defeating IS. Here, one finds clashing agendas, different and rival traditions, and the almost certain prospect that the defeat of IS will ultimately constitute only an episode in the wider story of conflict in Iraq.
Iraqi Security Forces
‘I don’t believe in Shia and Sunna, Kurd and Turkmen. We are all citizens,’ said Major-General Najem Jbeiri, as we sat in his office at an army base south of Mosul. Jubeiri is the commander of Nineveh operations for the Iraqi Army and the officer commanding the Mosul operation for the army.
Jbeiri, slow of speech and with the measured and cool delivery of an experienced commander, has an interesting and varied past. Graduating the officer’s school of the old Iraqi army in 1979, he was a brigadier general in Saddam’s air defense units in the war of 2003. Later, he began to work with the Americans, serving as mayor of Tel Afar west of Mosul in the period 2005-8. Then he made his new home in America.
Now he is back, commanding the army in Mosul, and still declaring his loyalty to the idea of a united Iraq. ‘Politicians use sectarianism to keep their positions. I don’t believe in it,’ he told me. ‘If we stay locked to the past, we’ll go to hell. If we forget what happened, we’ll have a chance for the future.’
The army, Jbeiri asserted, has moved on since the disastrous performance of the summer of 2014, when IS took Mosul and was stopped at the gates of Baghdad and Erbil. Better training, better weapons, increased motivation will produce different results.
Perhaps. But it has been a long and slow slog to Qayara airfield, the hub of the Iraqi army’s operations south of Mosul.
Jbeiri, when he is not commanding troops for the Mosul offensive, is a research fellow at the Near East and South Asia department of the National Defense University in Washington DC. He has come a long way from Saddam Hussein’s anti-aircraft units. His paeans to forgetting the past, embracing shared citizenship and rejecting sectarianism are certainly of the stuff that his DC employers would be happy to hear.
They do not, however, reflect the sentiments of other, no less important players in the area of the Mosul battlefield. They also do not resemble the frankly sectarian nature of the Shia dominated government in which he serves, which relies, in good part, on the efforts of Shia Islamist militias supported by Iran. Jbeiri will be returning to his home in the US when the Mosul operation is completed.
The anti-IS forces arranged around Ninawah province, of which Mosul is the capital, meanwhile, are a deeply varied gathering . And the Iraqi Security Forces of Major-General Jbeiri are not the strongest or most consequential of them. In addition to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish Pesh Merga, the Shia militias of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Sunni militiamen of the Hashd al-Watani (National Mobilization) and even the Kurdish PKK, as well of course as US-led coalition air power and advisers are all set to play an active role in the battle.
The powerful Kurdish Pesh Merga, controlling the entrances to Mosul from the north, east and west, have a starkly different view to the representatives of the Baghdad government of the nature and meaning of the battle in which they are engaged. For them, the sweet words of the Major-General about shared citizenship conceal a bitter history, and a state structure in which they have no desire to remain. Though they are at pains to point out that many refugees from IS controlled areas, in particular from minority communities, appear to prefer Kurdish controlled northern Iraq to the areas controlled by the Iraqi Army.
Senior Pesh Merga commander General Bahram Yassin, speaking at his HQ in Bashiqa overlooking Mosul city, told me that ‘The process of capturing Mosul will be a stage in the achievement of Kurdish independence. President Barzani has already started the process by announcing a referendum. Our main goal is getting to independence.’
I reminded the commander of a recent statement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi urging the Kurds to move no further towards Mosul on their own. Abadi had warned of the possibility of resistance to the Pesh Merga from the Sunni Arab inhabitants of the city.
‘The Pesh Merga have been responsible for security around Mosul since 2003,’ Bahram Yassin responded, ‘And regardless of what Abadi says, we are going to move forward…And we will have clear conditions for taking part in the Mosul operation. There is a need for clarity on who will control the city after the operation is concluded, including taking into account the interests of minority communities. We will not take part in a process where we lose many men, and are then asked to leave the areas we conquer.’
In the course of a week in northern Iraq, I interviewed a number of Pesh Merga commanders and leading officials of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party. Not all of them expressed themselves in such blunt terms as this senior field officer. But all, without exception, spoke of an imminent independence referendum and the inevitability of a Kurdish state.
Yassin was concerned not only about IS, but also about the presence of the Iran-supported Iraqi Shia militias in the Mosul area, and of their agenda. ‘The Hashd al-Sha’abi (Shia militias) are a big challenge to the future both of Kurdistan and of Iraq. Many of them are trained by the Iranians. They receive support from the government. They are seeking to secure an area in the west of Mosul. Which will be a channel to Sinjar, and from there to Syria. They want to complete the ‘Shia circle’ from Iraq, to Syria, and to Lebanon.’
According to a rumor commonly heard in Erbil, Shia militiamen are to be found among the Iraqi army forces, wearing the uniforms of Iraqi troops. That is, of the troops of Major-General Jbeiri, who dislikes sectarianism and wants to forget the past.
As if things were not complicated enough, Yassin and other Pesh Merga officers accuse the rival Kurdish PKK of collaboration with the Iran-aligned Shia militias in this task. They are deeply suspicious of the presence of a few hundred PKK fighters in the Sinjar area, to Mosul’s west. Sources close to the PKK, meanwhile, dismiss these charges and issue a counter accusation regarding the KRG’s closeness to Turkey at a time when it is repressing its Kurdish population. They note the vital role played by the PKK in the defense of this area against IS in 2014.
Kurdish internal rivalries, in short, are also part of the picture around Mosul.
The KRG has recovered much of its composure since the summer of 2014. At that time, in a series of events which have yet to be adequately explained, the Pesh Merga failed to adequately defend their borders against the jihadis. The result was that IS reached the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, and launched an attempt at genocide against the Yezidis, a non-Muslim Kurdish speaking minority resident in areas close to the border.
The Pesh Merga have now re-conquered all territory lost in 2014. In recent weeks they have pushed IS from a series of strategic entry points into Mosul city, and taken a number of villages across the Khazer river, to Mosul’s east.
Nor do they appear to have any intention of ceding any ground taken. As General Mahdi in the Makhmur area put it, ‘We clean the area, we make the border, we opened the way. Where we gave our blood, only with blood will we leave.’
It is worth noting that for the Kurdish Regional Government, the Mosul campaign and the chance for military glory comes at a time of considerable domestic discontent. Low oil prices are wreaking havoc on an economy geared strongly toward energy exports. There is widespread unemployment. Salaries of officials have been cut, in some cases by as much as 75%.
In this climate, rivals of the ruling KDP accuse it of seeking to use the military campaign against IS, and the subsequent talk of independence referenda and independence as distractions from more immediate needs. Whatever the value of such statements, they reflect the extent to which the KRG has moved beyond a sense of danger to its existence, to the extent that the war against IS has become something of an internal political matter rather than an issue of common survival.
Under the protection of the Kurdish Pesh Merga, but separate to it, the Sunni Arab Hashd al-Watani has also emerged, but little noticed by the outside world.
A trip to their training base in the Bashiqa area is an entry into a world generally held to have vanished. The officers of the Hashd al Watani are all veteran commanders of Saddam’s army. There, on the plains of Ninevah province, in miniature, they have created a version of the military culture they know. To enter their base is to encounter in all its faded glory the once menacing military style of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. This comes complete with the suspicion and paranoia toward outsiders, the faint but clearly apparent desire to convey menace and intimidate, and the ability to step effortlessly into the language of ringing propaganda.
All rather offset, or rather transferred to a slightly surreal plane, by the fact that these former overlords of Iraq are today able to assemble their little force of 2-3000 men only with the permission and under the tutelage of the Kurdish Pesh Merga. That is to say, they are now under the protection of the very men who as young officers they chased and harried and hunted through the mountains of northern Iraq, when they were the representatives of a mighty and brutal regime, and the Pesh Merga only a ragged guerrilla force. But if the Hashd al Watani officers were affected by the irony of all of this, they weren’t showing it.
Tthe Hashd al Watani was established in cooperation with Barzani’s Kurdish government. But its training is being provided by none other than the Turkish Army. Welcome to the changed Middle East. On the Nineveh plains, a small Sunni Arab militia is being trained by the Turks, officered by former members of Saddam’s army, under the tutelage of a Kurdish government open in its desire for statehood and independence.
And who is this strange arrangement being mobilized against? Islamic State, of course. But then everyone is against the Islamic State. Their victims are the bloody shirt that every party in Iraq and Syria waves to establish their own righteousness. More meaningfully, the enemy of the Hashd al Watani, once again, is the Shia dominated, increasingly Iran-aligned government in Baghdad.
Indeed, the best way to understand this strange but significant initiative is that it represents a notable if tentative entry by Turkey into the arena that Iran has largely made its own in Iraq – namely, the sponsoring of sectarian political/military organizations in neighboring countries intended to advance the cause of the sponsoring state.
Turkish infantry officers, a lot younger and fitter looking than the superannuated Saddam-era veterans, are overseeing the training of the Hashd al Watani volunteers at the base at Bashiqa.
The Hashd al Watani is the brainchild of Atheel Nujaifi, former governor of Ninawah Province, who is strongly linked to Turkey.
Nujaifi, who I interviewed in Erbil, sees his force as an element in the construction of a federalized, decentralized northern Iraq, divided into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas. There will be ‘greater Turkish involvement,’ he predicted, if no solution is found to the needs of Iraq’s Sunnis.
Nujaifi has been criticized in the past for statements apparently taking a lenient view of the nature of IS rule in Mosul. He dismissed these criticisms, but it is clear that his main focus is what he sees as the intention of the government in Baghdad to create a sectarian Shia government, and what this would mean for the country’s Sunni Arab minority.
Like Bahram Yassin, Nujaifi sees the future of Mosul as part of a larger struggle to resist Iranian encroachment in the region. The Iranians, according to Nujaifi, wish to make use of Iraq’s Shia militias to achieve this goal. ‘Iran wants to use Mosul to build a corridor to Syria,’ he told me, ‘and to dominate the region.’ The Iranian intention, he suggested, is to ‘build a revolutionary army,’ through the Shia militias. (an identical point was made to me a year ago in Baghdad by an officer of the Badr Organization, one of the main Iran-supported militias in Iraq.)
As for Iraq’s future, if the attempts at federalism fail, and ‘if the Kurds split and become independent, then Iraq itself will split. The Sunnis cannot go back to the situation before 2014. But we hope this can be avoided,’
So both the commanders of the Pesh Merga, and their junior partners in Hashd al Watani, see the Iraqi government and in particular the Shia militias aligned with it as no less a danger to their respective community’s aspirations as are the now retreating Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State.
Mosul and Beyond
Where is all this heading? The offensive appears to be approaching. There are reports of heavy military traffic on the Erbil-Mosul road. Leaflets have been dropped by coalition aircraft over the city, informing its inhabitants that the liberation of the city is imminent and urging them to leave so as not to be used by IS as human shields during the battle. The refugees are continuing to stream in from the IS controlled areas.
From the frontline positions of General Bahram Yassin’s Pesh Merga in Bashiqa, the city of Mosul can be clearly seen. About 12 kilometers only separate the Kurdish forces from Mosul city center, their final objective in any assault. On most days now, the frontlines are quiet, just the occasional mortar fire or the crump of heavier ordnance from further off. The fighters spend their days cleaning their weapons, keeping fit, and waiting for the order to move forward.
Much fighting and dying remains to be done in and around Mosul city before Islamic State is finally destroyed. The gravity and urgency of this task should not in any way be underestimated. The refugees from Jahala are of the same flesh and blood as all of us, and this is salient.
But the eventual defeat of the Islamic State is looking increasingly inevitable. And even now, before the victory, the various forces in the ‘coalition’ assembled to destroy IS are already looking beyond the city, toward the political, and perhaps also the military struggles which will follow its conquest. The Kurdish Pesh Merga on the ridges above the city are thinking about independence, the Sunni militiamen under their tutelage also see little future for themselves in a united Iraq, the Shia militiamen are serving the cause of the larger, Iran-led regional alliance of which they are a part. The PKK are seeking to advance their own, rival Kurdish nationalist project. The road beyond Mosul promises to be a treacherous, complicated path, strewn with landmines.