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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

A Never Ending Catastrophe

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A young Iraqi girl returns to school in Karbala after the American invasion of her country. Behind her is a mural of Muhammed al-Durah, a young boy killed by the Israeli defence forces in Gaza during the second intifada in Palestine. The Ba’athist regime sought to co-opt Palestine’s national liberation struggle with its own brutal security state to conflate them as part of a broader Arab nationalist agenda. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Fifteen years ago today the Ba’athist government of Iraq was wholly overthrown by the United States military along with its United Kingdom partners and a minute cabal of disconnected, diaspora Iraqis looking to implement various unrealistic political agendas in their home country. Today I have only images and memories left of that chaotic, strategic disaster that forever upended the Middle East’s calcified post-colonial nation-state order with little to no forethought of the dire consequences.

We as a world community would not be where we are today were it not for the invasion of Iraq.

I look back on this solemn image and wondered what happened to this girl. She was nervous returning to her primary school and froze in front of a mural of Muhammal-Durrah.  She would be in her twenties by now if she has managed to survive years and years of mechanized and suicidal violence. I can’t ever know I suppose.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 9th, 2018 at 5:57 am

The Detritus of Pain: Iraq 15 Years On

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“All Donne [sic] Go Home” The feet still sit atop the plinth where the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down on April 9 2003 in Firdows Square. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- Today marks fifteen years since the disastrous Anglo-American invasion of the Republic of Iraq. Eighteen months after the American intervention in the Afghan civil war became internationalised in response to 9/11, the next phase of what I refer to as the Terror Wars began as the Iraqi state was violently dismantled with  disproportionately expensive munitions.  This air campaign and concurrent ground war were quickly followed by a bumbling know-nothing former US ambassador to the Netherlands establishing an awkward neo-colonial ad administration in Baghdad that was more bent on disenfranchising Ba’athists that permanently repairing the power grid. The United States, along with its junior partner the United Kingdom did not have a clear vision of who their enemy was.

New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were attacked by al-Qaeda, a transnational salafi-jihadi organisation with a Saudi face but an Egyptian ideological backbone. The Taliban and al-Hizb ul-Ba’ath did not plot nor launch any such attack yet they morphed into the targets of the Terror Wars in terms of proportionality. That is not to say they were not despicable regimes, each were both deceptive and vile. The Taliban unrepentantly sheltered al-Qaeda leadership and allowed the travelers of its morose caravan safe passage. The minoritarian Ba’athists in Baghdad, who had worked to modernise the Iraqi state through repressive and often violent means, were secretive and paranoid regarding their Shia Iranian neighbours to the detriment of all other international relations.

But did either post a meaningful threat to America and the collective West more broadly?

The late Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, referred to in the American media almost exclusively as simply ‘Saddam’ (imagine how it would sound if Vladimir Putin was always referred to as just ‘Vladimir?’) having fought an eight year trench war against millenarian Shia revolutionaries in Iran was still concerned about his country falling into the hands of what he perceived as his true enemies, the ‘Safavids’ (a derisive term for Iranians in the Iraqi context). Saddam Hussein feared Iranian power–the near enemy– more than the United States–the far enemy–who had stopped short of dislodging him in 1991.

Fifteen years on the United States military is still operating in Iraq (as well as Afghanistan) albeit on a much smaller human scale. Would those avidly viewing “shock and awe” on Fox or Sky news fifteen years ago today have supported attacking this country had they the foresight it would last this long? One can suppose almost certainly not.

Many of al-Qaeda’s core leaders from the late 1980s and mid-1990s have been killed in drone strikes or in the occasional successful special operations raid. But AQ ideology, a strain of replicating salafism that relies on coercion and mass casualty religio-politcal violence to spread its self-appointed righteous messaging has dimmed. This occurred not in the face of the Terror Wars wins on a military scorecard or effective counter-terror efforts but because a more polished peer competitor, the so-called ‘Islamic State,’ came along with a slick millenial social media portfolio to oust AQ from its perch atop Sunni radical primacy.

Saddam Hussein was hastily executed at the end of 2006 while in stark contrast Mullah Mohammed Omar died in secret to all but his closest confidants in 2013–though this was not revealed until 2015. These men were detestable despots each of their respective forms  but it can be argued fairly easily that neither posed a direct threat to the hard security of the American mainland. AQ on the other did and does though it is currently competing with its splinter-cum-rival IS within the salafi conflict realm on several fronts.

Here we are with war in Iraq still grinding on in what is simply a new phase. Yet there is no end in sight to Iraqi suffering as the fitna (internecine Muslim warfare) that was borne out of the laboratory of the occupation that began a decade and a half ago continues with macabre zeal in the present day. I doubt few Americans are aware of this anniversary and those that do may not care all that much.

Iraq 10 years after the invasion, soldiers chat at a remote checkpoint in Kirkuk governorate that would soon fall to IS months after I shot this image. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Iraq is a half a world away from the United States buffeted by the (now also war-torn) Levant, Mediterranean, and the vast, deep, frigid Atlantic Ocean. Baghdad is seven hours ahead of the East Coast where many if not most of those neoconservative charlatans and self-described well meaning liberal interventionists still live and work.

Why anyone who advocated for regime change here, be it in the op-ed pages of major American newspapers or in the halls of congress still finds gainful employment is far beyond me. Their words and shoddily founded opinions were and are responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and some 4000 American servicemen. Before there was to be kinetic warfare there was a venomous lobbying war in Washington as well as London. Those talking heads who have issued a paltry few mea culpas in the last decade cannot truly atone for their intellectual sins. For they do not have to live in the hell they help foment.

The war in Iraq incubated the most loathsome of human behaviours that are now commonplace in this region. Beheadings and suicide bombings went from being the remote tactical exception to the norm, espeically in terms of militant propaganda. This society was traumatically brutalised by al-Hizb ul-Ba’ath for decades and that repressed legacy was allowed to come to the surface as globalist salafism spread in the context of the concomitant internet revolution. When I first arrived in Iraq in 2003, I had no way to check my email for weeks, only big money corporate journos who had imported satellite phones from Dubai or London had the ability to be online but even so social media was in its infancy.

Iraq today still burns with rage, as does now neighbouring Syria. Iraqi friends of spoken with from Kirkuk to Baghdad to Basra, assert that the legacy of ethno-sectarian politics entrenched since 2003 has left Iraq more dangerous and dilapidated in many places than it was under the collective punishment of 1990s era UN sanctions.

There is still no end in sight.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 20th, 2018 at 3:50 am

In the Disputed Zone

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Commander Khosrat of the KDP faction of the Peshmerga in the agrarian area of Kandenawa, within the so-called ‘Disputed Territories’, watches the road warily with Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries not all that far away. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Kirkuk-I have a new piece out with Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required) in the UK on my latest findings in troubled Kirkuk governorate and the Disputed Territories. Following the now notorious events of 16 October last year in which the PUK Peshmerga and Asayish made a highly controversial retreat from the oil rich city and eponymous governorate of Kirkuk thereby ceding power to the Iraqi central government and its plethora of Iranian-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces.

In what’s come to be known in Erbil and throughout the KRG as the ’16 October crisis,’ Iraq’s Kurdish political elites took an immense gamble in holding the disastrous 25 September independence referendum with lots of hyperbole but not concrete plan or even an outline to secede from republican Iraq. As Kurdish security forces took advantage of the security vacuum when ISF abandoned Kirkuk during an IS advance in 2014, the al-Abadi government took advantage if intra-KRG and even intra-PUK bickering–with the help of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani–to take Kirkuk back from Kurdish control in a big win for central authority and a huge loss of the Kurds ‘Jerusalem.’

Having last been to the city when it was under PUK-dominated KRG control, the contrast was stark in returning in February. As soon as I got to the city centre and began shooting photos, I was immediately questioned by Federal Police and asked to delete my photos. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was walking around freely last August.

Baghdad has visibly put Iraq’s Kurds on notice that the game has changed. The lucrative oil fields are now back under the control of ISF and Hashd units and hydrocarbons may now be heading for Iran rather than Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

IDPs return to Kirkuk from the KRG. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

March 2nd, 2018 at 10:57 am

Posted in Iraq,Kurdistan

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Back to Iraq 6.0

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A headless statue of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad 15 years ago. If the neoconservative war planners’ goal was “regime decapitation,” in this case it was interpreted literally by beheading a statue atop its shiny plinth. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived back in Iraq for the sixth time since the American-led invasion that commenced fifteen years ago (a month from now give or take). On 20 March 2003 Baghdad time, the ground forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, along the royal navy of the Kingdom of Denmark (with possibly a small contingent of special operations forces). This country has been in some form of chaos ever since. While many areas are comparatively stable as here in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administrative seat, or the oil port of Basra far to the south, even these areas are built upon a shaky political modus vivendi that guarantees no future stability without some for of genuine communal reconciliation.

We are now living in the era of the so-called ‘terror wars,’ a time of perpetual terror and spreading instability. Though our world is oft said to be in a steady decline of conventional warfare since the conclusion of the second world war in terms of both breadth and the geographic distribution of conflict, that academic sentiment holds little if any water to the people of this region. From Operation Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Desert Fox to Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn to Inherent Resolve,* much of what Iraqis (and now Syrians) know about American power is through the blunt force of orchestrated, highly mechanized violence.

*Note: Coalition partner code names may, and often do, differ.

Here we are in early 2018 and it has been reported that American troops in Iraq are to begin a gradual force drawdown after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-abadi declared a total victory over IS…in terms of territoriality anyway. But note that a drawdown is not a withdrawal and that it may purportedly, quietly signal a troop build up in Afghanistan where the Taliban are gaining territorial control replete with shadow governance. And unlike October 2001, IS has a serious presence there now presenting themselves as a more fundamental movement in terms of Sunni salafi jurisprudence as opposed to the traditional Deobandi strain of Taliban ideology with its local South Asian characteristics. In short, the fight in Afghanistan has intensified in terms of its non-state actor complexity.

Iraq is as fractious and fluid as a nation-state can be. In the wake of the IS defeat in Ninewa, al-Anbar, and Kirkuk governorates in particular, nothing in terms of the country’s territorial integrity has been resolved nor has the insurgency been completely defeated by any means. There are still IS remnants in and around the Hamrin mountain range and there is talk, albeit somewhat unsubstantiated at the time of this writing, of a group of disgruntled Kurdish nationalists calling themselves the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ operating on the outskirts of Tuz Khurmatu in perennially troubled Salah ad-Din governorate south of here.

Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga in one of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate, five years back. While facing off a multitude of Sunni and nominally Sufi insurgents, they were also facing off the forces of the central government. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In Iraq, and now neighbouring Syria, the end of one war merely often only signifies the start of the next. This is due in large part to indigenous political elites pandering only to their power base while never genuinely mediating, much less resolving, core ethno-sectarian fissures coupled with Western policy makers having only a primordial understanding of.

The terror wars expand and contract but they do not end. There is no end game, no coherent strategy. And there never was.

The Iraqi flag flowing in Erbil fifteen years after the latest stage in the war here began (and then morphed). ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2018 at 11:23 am

Hawija Finally Collapses but for How Long?

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KDP-affiliated Peshmerga fighters look on toward then IS-held territory in Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate which is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have an article out in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel entitled “The Hawija Offensive: A Liberation Exposes Faultlines,” based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk governorate in August and September. I began this work before the offensive to retake the IS-held, so-called “Hawija pocket” kicked off in late September, just days before the Kurdish referendum on independence was going to be held. During my visits, the frontline was effectively stalemated because Kurdish forces could not agree on who would control the neighbouring district of Hawija with Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias known in Iraq as Hashd al-Shaabi.

Both sides were equally wary of each other’s intentions. In the end, Iraqi state forces and heavily armed Shia factions chased IS out of Hawija where they had been entrenched longer than Mosul or ar-Raqqa in terms of firm territorial control. Hawija was the quintessential building block of the aspiring ‘khilifah’ (‘caliphate’).

Ultimately Shia-dominated forces stormed into the long-held Sunni salafi enclave and evicted IS who ended up surrendering en masse as the khilifah was in its final stage of collapse as a military and administrative entity.

Little known to the world outside Iraq, Hawija is hugely symbolic in terms of Sunni grievances. A disastrous raid by then PM Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces in April 2013 acted as a catalyst for an IS takeover of the eponymous district a mere eight months on. In Iraq, Hawija is synonymous with Sunni Arab resentment of Shia power politics and armed insurgency.

It won’t be long before we begin to hear about IS regrouping in small numbers of “sleeper cells” around Hawija for that geography and the rage within it is part of what enabled IS to begin its territorial quasi state-building project in the first place.

PUK-affiliated Peshmerga along the frontline northwest of Tuz Khurmatu. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 18th, 2017 at 8:41 am

When in Kirkuk

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Frontline fighters were disciplined in waiting for their commander’s instructions while they occasionally took in IDP families and withstood IS salvos meant to harass their position in Dibis district. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Paros-I have a piece out this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre on the findings from my field research in late August and early September in the troubled, multi-ethnic Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din governorates. These contentious regions act as a kind of security buffer between the mostly quiescent KRG that abuts northeastern Syria, Turkey and northwestern Iran and the schismatic Arab heartland of central Iraq.

But with the Kurdish desire to maintain control over Kirkuk after it was abandoned by state security forces, Baghdad wanting to reassert control over Kirkuk with Iranian-backing, and let’s not leave out the minority Turkmen who consider Kirkuk their cultural capital within the Iraqi milieu. Thus Kirkuk, and to a lesser degree Tuz Khurmatu, the seat of Salah ad-Din, will pull in all these players with oil-fueled centripetal force that will make its contested status an issue immediately after the IS territorial decline is certain.

While the focus is on eradicating the salafi-jihadis encircled by Kurdish, ISF, and Hashd al-Shaabi  units, once the Hawija pocket is subsumed back into state control, the likelihood of Kurdish and Shia fighters turning on one another is assured.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 26th, 2017 at 4:26 am

Posted in Iraq

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The Festering Bastion

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A Peshmerga commander in Dibis district points toward IS controlled villages some five kilometers away on the baking hot horizon. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I have a new article out for Jane’s Intelligence Review on the forces arrayed around what has come to be known as the ‘Hawija pocket’ in southwestern Kirkuk governorate. The traditionally Sunni Arab town of Hawija, a restive northern bastion of insurgency from 2004 forward, and its hinterlands acted as an accelerator of Sunni grievances when Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp there in late April of 2013.

The Peshmerga and their battlefield peer competitors in the Hashd al-Shaabi have been stuck in operational limbo as there has been no agreement on who would govern a post-IS Hawija once the smoke has cleared. The ethnic Turkmen stationed outside the town of Bashir (alt. Basheer) from the local brigade of the Badr Organisation withstood IS sniper fire at the time of my visit which they promptly answered with a Zu-23 anti-aircraft gun mounted atop a BTR-50 tucked safely behind a berm.

Knocking IS out of Hawija will be more like Tal Afar than Mosul or ar-Raqqa. The armed groups surrounding the pocket just haven’t been able to come to terms on a battle plan. That should change very soon. Hawija simply isn’t valuable enough for IS to continue to hold onto till the last man. It is more likely planning a salafi version of taqiyya (dissimulation) into the local population while it decides to regroup in the nearby Hamrin mountains.

 

 

Written by derekhenryflood

September 20th, 2017 at 9:08 am

Intervention

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A then rare daylight (barely) landing of American soldiers in Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan in November 2001. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

A then rare daylight (barely) landing of American soldiers in Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan in November 2001. Who would have thought then that troops would still be present 15 years on? ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Fifteen year ago today the United States military intervened in the then ongoing civil war in Afghanistan which until 9/11 had been all but entirely ignored in the West save for a few women’s rights groups and other specifically focused human rights outfits. Suddenly Afghanistan became a geopolitical cause celebré while almost no one understood the real time human dynamics transpiring on the ground there.

To call the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom an outright ‘occupation’ as many are doing on social media this week is a serious misnomer. Part of why Arab AQ members were able to flee across the Durand Line into the warrens of neighbouring FATA was because the US began with such a small footprint in Afghanistan. As is very well known, even before the bombing commenced on October 7, 2001, there were impetuous agitators in the White House and the Pentagon who wanted to seize the opportunity to topple the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Intervention is a far more apropos term to describe the beginning of Western war fighting efforts there.

And we–the world–are 15 years on. There was never a strategically coherent vision of what success in Central Asia’s perennial basket case looks like. Aside from the forced idea of the country becoming a woefully underperforming democratic state, how Islamic should it be? Should it be more of a functioning autocracy?

No one agrees on anything. Each unreformed warlord/mujahideen big man has their own ethn0-centric base or vote bank that they consider well before the rest of the country. Ethno-linguistic groups very often consider themselves in competition with one another rather than as components of a largely cooperative society where zero-sum games trump idealistic concepts of inclusivity and diversity.

The Karzai years seem like an entire era of lost opportunity with the former Afghan president seemingly less rational by the day the longer he remained in power. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

The Karzai years seem like an entire era of lost opportunity with the former Afghan president seemingly less rational by the day the longer he remained in power. I saw this poster (next to one of Massoud for northern street credibility among Tajiks) in Samangan province while researching the early days of the 2001 intervention. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

Kabul is still lined with dust packed unpaved streets throughout many of its more well to do neighbourhoods, the city has only a handful of functioning ATMs, and has remained a festering, little discussed environmental disaster for decades (those certain, hmm, unpleasant particulates in the smog).

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-3-20-02-pmIn that other failed neo-conservative legacy war theatre, I have a new piece for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor out this week entitled, “The Islamic State’s waning fortunes in Mosul and the dynamic of the offensive.”

Despite talk of an ‘October surprise’ throughout the summer, such a battle has yet to materialise to recapture the world’s most talked about occupied city. In the article, I explore how the overall contraction of IS territorial control has helped to focus coalition efforts on the much feted recapture of the north’s former economic capital which the central government notoriously lost control of in June 2014.

Part of why the effort to dislodge IS has become such a costly and difficult prospect is precisely because salafi-jihadis were allowed the political action space to lodge themselves so firmly in.

I’m confident that Mosul will be freed but just as confident that its freeing will start a highly complex competition for power and control of the city. What will the limits of Kurdish power be? Will the Hashd al-Shabi abuse Sunni civilians they default assume to be IS sympathisers? How much influence with the al-Nujaifi brothers have in a post-IS scenario? Not I nor anyone has the answers to these sorts of questions. At some point in the supposedly near term, armed groups will move into Mosul and only through exceedingly perilous trial and error will we find out such answers.

The peshmerga warily monitor IS positions from their makeshift bunkers along the Makhmour front. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

The peshmerga warily monitor IS positions from their makeshift bunkers along the Makhmour front. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 7th, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Posted in 9/11,Afghanistan,Iraq

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