By Sinan Adnan
Iraq's Prime Minister (PM) Haidar al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khalid al-Ubaidi came under increasing political pressure from former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allies and select Shi'a militia leaders this week. Pro-Maliki social media levied criticisms in posts between April 24 and April 27, 2015. ISIS's successful attack against an Iraqi Army outpost in eastern Anbar provided the proximate cause for the criticism, allowing political opponents to target Abadi and Ubaidi for what they described as poor performance of the government in managing the security portfolio. ISIS's recent gain in Anbar, while tactically important, is still relatively small given the overall success of the Iraqi Security Forces operation that cleared ISIS from Tikrit. It nevertheless showed that ground ISF units in Anbar are arrayed to address various high priorities such as the defense of Ramadi, preventing them from launching a successful ground rescue operation. Shi'a political rivals are likely targeting Abadi not only to make political gains, but also because of his recent cooperation with the U.S., which angered politicians affiliated with Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias. Maliki has recently staged himself as a senior figure within the sphere of the militias by attending militia-sponsored events and funerals of senior militia figures. This outreach to the militias may indicate that he is setting conditions whereby he can break off militia-supportive elements of the Shi'a coalition that supports the current PM and challenge current Prime Minister Abadi, who is a member of his own Dawa party. These events may increase political and social tension in Baghdad and Iraq’s Shi'a provinces at a vulnerable time.
During last week, ISIS reportedly besieged an IA outpost near the Thar Thar regulatory Dam, an area in the desert between Baghdad and Anbar province with historic foot print of anti-government militant groups. ISIS launched an attack on the base on April 24, 2015, initiating intense clashes with the ISF. The attack took place at a time when the ISF were advancing toward Garma, an area located northeast of Fallujah that is part of ISIS’s defense of Fallujah. The attack was likely meant to divert ISF resources in the area. Commander of the 1st IA division, which operates in eastern Anbar, Gen. Hassan Abas Tufan headed a force to reinforce the ISF at the outpost. ISIS then launched an attack on the force reportedly using four VBIEDs, killing the division commander along with the a Brigade commander. ISIS successfully expelled the IA forces from the outpost thereafter.
The acting AOC commander stated on April 25, 2015 that forces from the IA and Federal Police (FP) deployed to the area with Iraqi and Coalition air support to roll back ISIS’s advance. The Defense Minister stated on April 26, 2015 that ISIS remained in control of the regulatory dam, however, highlighting that the attack killed 13 individuals while seven others, who included members of the “Popular Mobilization” who fled the facility on April 25, 2015. Seven members were rescued on April 26, 2015 by an IA aviation force headed by the commander of the IA Aviation, Gen. Hamid al-Maliki. On April 27, Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) stated that it recaptured the regulatory dam. Official reports from the MoD and PM’s offices indicated that the casualty count from ISIS’s attack did not exceed 13 dead, but rumors circulated that the attack led to the death of more than a 100 ISF members. The inflated casualty count was broadcast by both ISIS supporters and political opponents of Abadi to attack his security record and that of the defense minister.
ISIS published a video on April 25, 2015 showing the aftermath of the attack on what appeared to be a Company Headquarters (HQ) near the regulatory dam and two bodies dressed in ISF attire. The footage also showed ISIS members posting an ISIS flag in the base and roaming the premises. Separate anti-government social media outlets recycled pictures of other corpses, alleging that they were from the recent attack, further claiming that ISIS captured dozens of ISF members. In addition, some local news sources quoted a local official from Anbar stating that ISIS executed 50 ISF members in Fallujah that were kidnapped earlier from the regulatory dam. Then reports circulated through pro-ISIS social media and other questionable sources that 140 ISF members were besieged in the base and that ISIS opened the Thar Thar dam to flood Baghdad. ISIS is known to plant such rumors in order to shape battlefield reactions in its favor. One week prior, ISIS supporters spread rumors between April 11 and April 17 east of Ramadi before an assault, indicating that ISIS was advancing using a force much bigger than it actually possessed, causing residents and Iraqi Police (IP) forces in and around Ramadi to vacate their homes and positions in fear of an ISIS massacre.
Pro-ISIS supporters were not the only ones broadcasting disinformation about ISIS’s attack in Thar Thar. Facebook pages of pro-Maliki supporters adopted Thar Thar as their case to undermine Abadi, describing what happened as the “Thar Thar massacre.” A Maliki ally who currently heads her own political party, Hanan al-Fatlawi attacked PM Abadi and the defense minister and highlighted that she is preparing for a questioning session of the minister at the Council of Representatives (CoR). Also, head of the State of Law Alliance in the CoR, Ali al-Adib called for the defense minister to attend the CoR to explain what happened at Thar Thar. Another Maliki ally, Alya Nsayef called for the resignation of the defense minister. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian backed organization also stated that 140 ISF members were killed in Thar Thar and criticized the government for not acting promptly to support the forces at Thar Thar to stop the massacre. Highlighting one dimension of this issue, member of the Mowatin bloc of ISCI, Falih al-Sari highlighted that members within the National Alliance stand behind this recent media campaign against the PM and added that a “known personality,” likely a reference to Nouri al-Maliki, is behind this media effort that “dreams of heading the government again.”
The criticism culminated on April 28, 2015 when the CoR hosted the defense mister. The session was also attended by the PM and other senior security leaders. The speaker of the CoR declared the session secret. Despite the secret nature of the session, it will almost certainly include a broader discussion beyond the events of Thar Thar. Political opponents, especially those affiliated with militias like Badr and allies of VP Maliki, will likely use the session to voice their discontent with the PM. This political escalation will likely have polarizing effects within the CoR in a way that can hinder the work of the government.
Iraqi society has become neuralgic to events that result in the death of besieged ISF members especially after the killing of hundreds of ISF members that were besieged in Camp Speicher following the fall of Tikirt in June 2014. The reports of a massacre in Thar Thar resulted in public protests in Baghdad and Najaf that were likely genuine. It is also likely that Abadi opponents contributed to the organization of these protests, especially since the protest in Najaf called for the dismissal of the both, the PM and the defense minister.
Iranian-backed militias themselves also have reason to undermine the PM at this time. The recent coordination between Iraq and the U.S. that sidelined the Iranian backed-Iraqi Shi’a militias has generated a push back from Iranian allies in Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a longstanding Iranian proxy group released four statements between April 21 and 27, 2015 attacking the Iraqi government and the PM for what it described as poor management of the security portfolio and heavy reliance on the U.S. KH distanced itself from what it described as agreements between the “head of authority and leaders in the Popular Mobilization” and indicated that it will withdraw from its fighting position near Baghdad and never participate in future operation as a demonstration against government policies.
It is unlikely that this campaign to challenge PM Abadi will achieve substantial results such as the dismissal of the defense minister, but it does highlight that security is not the sole challenge for the Abadi government in April 2015. The recent effort by the PM to bring various militias including those backed by Iran under the control of the state has likely resulted in exacerbating tension between the PM and the militias. It has also given political rivals a direct opportunity to challenge him. The push back from KH provides insight into what to expect in the future if the government takes concrete efforts to take control of the militias.