Islamic State’s Ramadi seizure another setback for al-Abadi

Militants’ Anbar advance gives more ammunition to Iraq premier’s rivals

Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi. Mr Al-Abadi’s rivals have enjoyed another setback for the prime minister after his failure to retake Anbar province from Islamic State. Photograph: Zach Gibson/The New York Times

Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi. Mr Al-Abadi’s rivals have enjoyed another setback for the prime minister after his failure to retake Anbar province from Islamic State. Photograph: Zach Gibson/The New York Times

 

The campaign to retake Anbar province from Islamic State was supposed to be Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s show. The script went like this: US air power plus a ground force of Iraqi security forces and local Sunni tribal fighters would push out the militants, with Iran and its Shia militias nowhere to be seen.

Now, with Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, fully in the hands of Islamic State, thousands of Shia militiamen were rushing this week to Sunni territory to try to turn the fight around, officials said.

Meanwhile, Mr Abadi’s rivals within Iraq’s Shia political bloc, many of whom accuse him of doing too much to work with Sunnis rather than just empowering the militias, were enjoying another setback for the increasingly weakened prime minister.

Mr Abadi became prime minister last year, with strong backing from the US, on the belief that he would be a more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and would reach out to the country’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The prime minister has aimed to do so, by pushing for the arming of local Sunni tribesmen and reaching a deal with the Kurds to share oil revenue.

But at every turn he has been thwarted by powerful Shia leaders with links to Iran, including Mr al-Maliki.

The latest setback in Ramadi has given Mr Abadi’s rivals even more ammunition.

“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Centre. “It’s from the Shia side.”

Some Shia politicians, including powerful militia leaders linked to Iran, whose fighters are now preparing to fight in Anbar, have become increasingly critical of Mr Abadi.

Either they have spoken out themselves, or media outlets they control have taken aim at the prime minister through distorted media coverage that has highlighted security failures in Anbar.

In one instance, the television news channel Afaq, which is run by allies of Mr al-Maliki, gave running coverage to the supposed slaughter of 140 army soldiers last month at an outpost in Anbar, spurring public criticism of Abadi.

Western diplomats and military officials say the story was untrue, and Islamic State never claimed to have killed that many.

However, analysts said that the aim was to undermine Abadi’s rule. There were calls for Abadi to resign.

Mr Abadi, who is known for a mostly mild-mannered approach, flashed uncharacteristic anger when he appeared before Iraq’s parliament and essentially dared his rivals to remove him from power.

“Iran is using Maliki against Abadi,” said a diplomat in Baghdad with close ties to the Iranians, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“They don’t want Abadi to become pro-Western. The Iranians want Abadi weak.”

An official close to Mr Abadi, who spoke anonymously, related a joke that has been told among the prime minister’s inner circle: “Even if two fish fight in the river, it is Maliki stirring them up.”

The official added, of Mr Abadi: “He is obsessed with Maliki.”

Shia militias

The largely Shia militias are grouped under an umbrella organisation called the Popular Mobilisation Forces and, on paper at least, are under Mr Abadi’s command.

Some of the newer units, formed last year after Shia clerics called on young men to take up arms and fight Islamic State, do answer to the prime minister.

However, some of the most powerful groups, such as the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, may answer to Mr Abadi in individual cases – they did not advance on Anbar until the prime minister gave orders, for example.

But those militias were trained and supported directly by Iran, and the militias’ leaders have grown immensely popular with the Iraqi public after winning significant battles against Islamic State.

This has presented serious challenges to Mr Abadi’s authority. For instance, in March, at the beginning of an operation to retake the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad, the plans were drawn up by militia leaders before Abadi was told it would happen.

Once those fighters failed to retake Tikrit decisively, Mr Abadi asked them to withdraw and called for help from US airstrikes, reasserting, for the moment, his authority.

Now that the militias have been called upon to fight in Anbar, Mr Abadi’s authority seems to be waning again, and the militias’ cachet has only grown.

One of the most popular pictures circulating on social media in Iraq on Monday showed Hadi al-Ameri, the powerful head of the Badr militia, examining a map and seemingly plotting out a new campaign in Anbar.

Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi analyst, recently wrote in an online column that the militias have “provided a potent rallying point for a reinvigorated sense of Iraqi nationalism, albeit one with distinctly Shia overtones”.

In an interview, Mr Haddad said Mr Abadi was limited in his ability to constrain the Popular Mobilisation Forces - or Hashid, in Arabic, as the militias are known here.

“If you want to be part of Iraq’s evolving political game, you can’t go against the Hashid,” he said. “It’s just too popular.”

New York Times service

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