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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Into the Mountains-New Work on IS in the Troubled Governorates of Northern Iraq

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Al-Shorta al-Ittihadiyya (Federal Police) patrol Kirkuk’s comparatively secure city centre as the Disputed Territories become increasingly insecure beyond its urban periphery. I was caught at a Fed Po checkpoint later this day and forced to delete this image under duress. I was able to recover the deleted file after finding the appropriate Youtube tutorial combined with 2.5 hours of navigating the solution. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

New York-I have a new piece out in the September 2018 issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly Sentinel journal on IS’s insurgent rear bases and operations in Iraq’s northern federally controlled governorates of Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala. (I excluded the dynamics in Mosul and wider Ninewa as that would’ve made the topic too broad and unwieldy) This project was a long time in the making as it first took shape when I returned to Kirkuk in February of this year and it was abundantly obvious how much the situation had changed since the federal and Shia militia takeover in October 2017 when the forces of the PUK, and less so KDP, were ousted.

After spending a month working in northern Syria I returned to Kirkuk to conduct interviews and do some more digging while speaking with civilians from Diyala and Salah ad-Din who told me in detail about the shaky security conditions along the Baghdad-Kirkuk road and what nightly life was like in the dangerous administrative seats that were and are suffering through nocturnal militant attacks as Fed Po largely kept in their barracks after sundown according to interviewees.

The city was by then plastered with campaign posters for the May parliamentary elections and the presence of Hashd militiamen seemed less overt. Baghdad was very keen to visibly assert control of Iraq’s arguably most tense major city (saying that without regard to the conditions down in Basra at present). In the interim while I’d been busy in al-Hasakah and Halab (Aleppo) governorates on the other side of the Euphrates, a few major security incidents occurred that the government of (still) PM al-Abadi could not ignore–particularly the ambush of 27 Hashd men in al-Hawija district later in February after I’d crossed into Syria. Returning in late March, Dibis and Kirkuk districts simply felt more tense. I attempted to interview the Baghdad-appointed governor Rakaan Saeed Ali al-Jubouri but was thrown out for being at his compound with a flimsy KRG visa after circumventing the security cordon somewhat by driving via the oil town of Taq Taq. Though not before I was able to gather plenty of nuanced detail on the security environment.

As a very visible symbol of the restoration of central authority over Kirkuk, the gigantic peshmerga statue at the city’s northern gate brandishes a republican flag after its formerly trademark Kurdistani flag was torn down. It can be argued without a hefty amount of vigor that security has worsened there since Iraqi security forces and Hashd militia brigades took control last fall. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

It was becoming undeniable the IS ease of use of the Hamrin and Makhoul mountains and Lake Hamrin basin area coupled with the nature of the area’s physical geography have enabled a rather permissive environment for insurgent activity. I had been on the edge of the Hamrin in September of last year when visiting PUK frontline positions in Daquq and Tooz districts before the KRG’s territorial project collapsed in the Disputed Territories. These places are far more difficult–and dangerous in my opinion–to visit a year 0n. At the time Erbil and Baghdad were, albeit in a temporary realpolitik mode, on the same side in a somewhat conventional war against IS. Now they have returned to the pre-2014 status quo as military peer competitors.

Met this effusive taxi driver from Riyadh subdistrict who described the deleterious conditions after central authority was restored to the Hawija pocket but never fully asserted 24 hours a day. He seemed happy about the relative safety of Kirkuk city and to give random Westerner  a ride to Governor al-Jubouri’s compound on the southern bank of the Khassa river. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Today federal authorities have their hands full. With the eyes looking down at the protest movement in Basra and other southern cities and the tussle over political power as a new government has yet to be formed months after the controversial May vote. The attacks emanating from the Hamrin range are ongoing while the COIN campaign being implemented does not have the feel of an overarching strategy. It’s a proverbial game of cat and mouse in those rocky hills.

PUK fighters in the southern part of Daquq district near the Hamrin mountains this time last year. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

September 10th, 2018 at 2:35 pm

War by Another Name: Insurgency in Northern Iraq

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While Baghdad is keen to visibly display its control over Kirkuk governorate following the liberation of Hawija coupled with the ouster of the peshmerga in October 2017, the city has seen an increase in militant incidents since the upending of the security status quo that preceded the return of central authority. This trend is not likely to be stalled nor reversed in the near term. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Kirkuk- I have a featured report in London at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (subscription required) this week about ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya’s (IS’s) return to almost purely asymmetric tactics after the forcible collapse of its all too modern, social media-fueled state-building project in Iraq and Syria. To put it mildly, things in southern swaths of Kirkuk governorate are bad, really bad. As are conditions in northern Salah ad-Din governorate and much of federally controlled (as opposed to PUK controlled areas) Diyala. This is not to mention situations in al-Anbar and Ninewa. It is not so much that these places are deteriorating from relatively secure to insecure but that their security at the village level was never entirely consolidated even after PM al-Abadi declared the republic entirely liberated last December.

The al-Abadi government made great strides–depending on one’s personal outlook–in restoring much of Iraq’s incredibly frayed territorial integrity. First from armed practitioners of al-salafiyya al-jihadiyya in a grinding, year-plus long offensive that largely centred upon the taking of Mosul. Before this massive operation was even completed, signified by the capture of al-Qaim and Rawa towns  in al-Anbar, Iraqi security forces and Shia militias-cum-paramilitaries known in Iraq parlance as Hashd al-Shaabi launched a swift operation to retake Kirkuk city and much of the surrounding disputed territories from KDP and PUK peshmerga. The Kurds were immediately routed in a mix of leadership betrayal and massive lack of force and armour parity.

Iraqi Kurds often refer to this as the ’16 October crisis’ whereby through dealmaking between the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s widow and one of his sons with Iran, the PUK forces withdrew from what president Talabani had called the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in a 2011 speech. Now in 2018, there exists an ungoverned space between ISF and Hashd-held territory and KDP and PUK-held lands where IS has been exploiting this gap to launch attacks on security forces, killing tribal leaders and their families they deem collaborators, and slaughtering uncooperative civilians.

Some have termed these developments as a return of IS though a more accurate depiction is that the IS presence was never entirely eradicated. After the disastrous liberation of Mosul in which scores of civilians were killed, when Tal Afar and Hawija and several other smaller towns were encircled by advancing ISF and Hashd forces, deals were made where militants fled via an uncontrolled corridor. This then indicates that those who were not later captured would live to regroup and fight another day. We are now living in that proverbial other day.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 22nd, 2018 at 4:00 pm

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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