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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

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


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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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Eyes on Mosul

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An Iraqi peshmerga and Iranian PAK fighter survey the IS-occupied town of Bashiqa in Ninewa Governoorate. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi peshmerga officerand Iranian PAK fighter survey the IS-occupied town of Bashiqa in Ninewa Governoorate. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-11-22-51-amNew York- I am proud to mention that I have the cover story of the October issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review entitled “Eyes on Mosul: Offensive Looms in Northern Iraq.” With each of the reporting trips I’ve made to Iraq over the years, the broken republic is in a higher phase of devolution from a centralised state to nearly discrete territories held by rivalrous groups adhering to identity-based ideologies each incompatible with the next.

During my previous trip in 2013, the smoke was on the horizon. IS was still a localised insurgent movement with a primarily regional agenda before it evolved into a transnational movement as it metastisised in neighbouring Syria. In its earlier stage, IS collaborated and even cooperated with other anti-government and anti-Kurdish groups along the ‘Green Line’ that has separated Kurdish-majority governorates and disputed districts in northern Iraq with so-called ‘Arab’ Iraq.

Reminding me somewhat of the LTTE in the early phases of their separatist war in northern Sri Lanka in the 1980s, one by one IS pushed aside, intimidated or eliminated peer competitors within its hyper violent action space.  IS seeks to be the sole non-state actor (or proto-state actor by its own macabre narrative) in the areas it administers. In intense contrast, the armed groups arrayed around Mosul are virtually all involved in peer competition be ethnic, sectarian, inter-reglious, intra-Kurdish and so forth. This does not bode well for attempting to govern a post-IS Ninewa.


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Where this dangerous dynamic works in the ad hoc coalition’s favour is that IS has no allies to fall back on. Despite losses of a number of major towns and cities, the salafi-jihadis still control a vast, though shrinking, territory. But it does not have a web of local alliances after over two years of unrelenting brutality. Nor does it have safe mountain redoubts nor an outlet to the sea. The encirclement of the group has only grown while a litany of air strikes have put them under immense pressure.

Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has made numerous pronouncements about the recapture of Mosul by the end of this year which would signify the defeat of IS in Iraq in his own words, there is still a long way to go and there is still not agreement about how Iraq’s second largest city will be rebuilt much less run.

Al-Abadi tweeted from the UN General Assembly in New York this week that an offensive to recapture the ancient Assyrian town of al-Shirqat was underway which is the last major IS stronghold in Salah-ad-Din Governorate. Then there is conundrum of Hawija in nearby Kirkuk Governorate which I saw coming in 2013 after the protest camp there was so violently dispersed fueling the fire of Sunni Arab discontent which allowed for the IS takeover in June 2014.

Though it wrought massive environmental degradation with the IS retreat, Qayyara was successfully retaken by ISF and its local allies after a prolonged stalemate along the Tigris. Much remains to be seen. I and much of the interested world will be staying tuned to see how the rest of the year plays out militarily in Ninewa.

A peshmerga soldier takes up a position after an IS sniper attack from the valley below in a tiny sandbagged position called Lufa. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

A peshmerga soldier takes up a position after an IS sniper attack from the valley below in a tiny sandbagged position called Lufa. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

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September 19th, 2016 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Iraq

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The Hard March

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Peshmerga along the Bashiqa front northeast of occupied Mosul just after sundown on August 8. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Peshmerga milling in front of bulky British-produced HESCO Bastion ‘Concertainer’ barriers along the Bashiqa front northeast of occupied Mosul just after sundown on August 8. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Very proud to have an article from my recent trip to Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate in the August issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. As you may have read or heard, there has been much talk of an offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul at some point this October. On my recent trip to Iraq, this notion seemed virtually entirely unlikely although if war planners want it badly enough, I suppose a slim possibility.

The article out in this month’s issue isentitled “The Hard March to Mosul: A Frontline Report,” or you can download the entire issue here. It’s late August at the time of this posting leaving not much time for an ‘October surprise’ to give a democratic administration in Washington a win during the very last phase of a bizarre election cycle.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vaguely promised the defeat of the so-called Islamic State inside Iraq’s borders (or former borders depending on one’s perspective) by the end of this year. Then came the talk of October. In Erbil I was informed of a November rumour. But just the talk of Mosul’s liberation is a quarrelsome affair to the hilt.

The two biggest issues seemed to me to be whether the Hashd al-Shabi (referred to as Popular Mobilisation Units in Anglophone media) will a) take part in the operation and/or b) enter Mosul itself with Iranian advisors quite possibly in tow–or being towed by perhaps. The second biggest question I encountered regards what will be the role of the peshmerga and will said peshmerga enter Mosul? A pesh commander reminded me of their forces being booted out of Mosul in 2003 after just ten short days to appease the Arab population’s wishes at the time.

A veteran peshmerga volunteer pauses after the natural stress cause by an Islamic State attack, a minuscule incident in a life scarred by decades of on again, off again conflict. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

A veteran peshmerga volunteer pauses after the natural stress caused by an Islamic State attack, a minuscule incident in a life scarred by decades of on again, off again conflict. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

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August 23rd, 2016 at 6:19 am

Posted in Iraq,Kurdistan

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Iraq Doings…

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Working on a few new projects here in Catalunya from my recent trip to Iraq. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Working on a few new projects here in Catalunya from my recent trip to Iraq. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Regretfully I haven’t updated TWD for quite some time. I had wanted to do regular updates during my recent stint in Iraq but that whole time I was focused on my goals there to the point where I shirked off just about everything else.  I’ll be updating the site more when some new works begin to be published.

Things didn’t go the way I’d envisioned before leaving NYC but all told they went well enough in that I got out unscathed. It was like one of those now clichéd expressions about war that I can never remember the exact wording of like, “everything is ok until it’s not” or “war is 98% boring, 2% terrifying.”

Iraq has been broken since 2003 and those attempting to keep it whole are taking on a Sisyphean task.

View of Baghdad's al-Mansour district and Saddam Hussein's unfinished ar-Rahman mosque taken from Baghdad tower after the fall of the regime. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

When the nightmare began. Baghdad, thirteen years ago. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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August 13th, 2016 at 9:45 am

Posted in Iraq

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