The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ tag

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

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

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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

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

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The Coming Offensive That Thus Far Isn’t

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Part of why the situation with Mosul has remained so militarily stagnant has to do with the once cosmopolitan city's ethnic and sectarian makeup for which there is not common ideation about its post-IS future. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Part of why the situation with Mosul has remained so militarily stagnant for more than two years has to do with the once cosmopolitan city’s ethnic and sectarian makeup-making it a very different scenario from Ramadi for example-for which there is not common idea among Baghdad and Erbil about its post-IS future. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York-  “Mosul, Mosul, Mosul!” is what enterprising taxi drivers in Erbil would yell as I walked past a dusty lot referred to as the Mosul garage years ago now. I would contemplate hopping in one of those shared orange-and-white battered taxis and heading an hour west in what was then Iraqi government territory with an estimate pre-war population of about 2 million. I didn’t take the trip for two reasons at the time: I didn’t have a visa for ‘Arab’ Iraq and figured I could be turned away at a checkpoint along the so-called Green Line that as delineated Kurdish majority areas from regime controlled ones since 1991; and my focus at the time was to interview a reclusive guerrilla commander in precisely the opposite direction.

Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister Haider al-Abadi has been promising this Mosul offensive for what today’s counts as time immemorial yet it still keeps not materialising. It is essentially common knowledge for Iraq watchers that the central government and the KRG haven’t been able to agree on a battle plan acceptable to both sides.

Meanwhile Washington officialdom make anonymous statements that Iraqi security forces simply are not capable whether in terms of logistical capability, battle readiness, and so forth. Yet Iraqi officials repeat that the country’s second city will be recaptured before 2016 is out but have been less than convincing about just how this would take place. ISF and their allies have slowly been retaking mostly minor villages in Ninewa Governorate to shrink the IS’s hinterland while it maintains its grip on the city.

Somewhat big news out of Baghdad today was Ashton Carter’s announcement that an additional 560 American servicemen will be headed to Iraq to help in anti-IS operations in support (officially anyway) of ISF. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq since the start of Inherent Resolve has steadily increased nearly two years into the operation. There are now some 4600 in all, a huge jump from the 275 authorised by the Obama administration in June 2014. And what can the ISF and the militias with which it works do without American air power?

As with the retaking of Fallujah but likely even more so, there will be a vast human cost to such highly anticipated military action. Dohuk Governorate will reportedly be prefabricating 5 new IDP camps to accommodate the coming IDP influx from IS-controlled territory. In sum, things will get much worse before they get better as the old saying goes…

Written by derekhenryflood

July 11th, 2016 at 3:00 pm

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