Year in review 2014: Iraq’s long decline and sudden collapse

As the first year of fighting comes to an end, things might be even more complicated in pursuit of an ISIL-free Iraq.
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter observes the front line with Islamic State, in Gwar, northern Iraq on September 23. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter observes the front line with Islamic State, in Gwar, northern Iraq on September 23. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

They buried the bodies with a digger, piling mound upon mound of dirt upon the corpses crowded into the ditches dug into the ground.

It was the afternoon the day after an ISIL offensive on the checkpoint, and the soldiers hadn’t finished burying everyone, but they were trying. The mouths of two jihadis, laid on their backs, were open. Flies whisked in and out of their vacant eyes, staring upwards eternally. Around them, victorious fighters from the Kurdish peshmerga were still posing with the corpses for new Facebook profile pictures.

Mounds like this one in Rabia poke out all around Iraq; mile markers on the road to defeating ISIL. But as the first year of fighting comes to an end, things might be even more complicated in pursuit of an ISIL-free Iraq. Indeed, the political and economic issues that gave seeming legitimacy to the resurgence of the Sunni insurgency this year are yet to be fully addressed, while the war against ISIL is largely at a standstill, with very few advances by either side in recent months.

See all our Year in Review coverage

The chaos in Iraq this past year has been building for a long time. According to Major General Douglas Stone, General David Petraeus’s deputy-in-charge of detainee affairs from 2007-08, in a 2012 interview with a Washington-based think tank, “one out of every 10 Iraqis had a personal experience with [coalition] detention”, in much the way most of ISIL’s leadership had personal experiences with detention. When these mostly Sunni men got out of detention, they found a de-Baathification programme in place which took jobs away from them and their family members, who had been employed under Saddam’s Sunni regime. They also found themselves in the minority in the government, for the first time many of them could remember: with a Shiite prime minister, a Sunni speaker of parliament and a Kurdish president.

In the build-up to 2014, the infrastructure of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s ISIL had undergone a massive transition from what it had been before Baghdadi took it over in 2010. Starting in the summer of 2012, for instance, Baghdadi began a campaign called Breaking the Walls, during which ISIL undertook a series of prison breaks, beginning with the Transferee Prison in Tikrit and culminating in the Abu Ghraib breakout in July 2013. The campaign was a propaganda and recruitment success.

Similarly, throughout 2013, Sunni protest movements sprang up throughout Iraq, organised by a variety of Sunni Islamist and Nationalist groups, such as Intifada Ahrar Al Iraq, the activist side of Baathist militant group Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN).

The Iraqi government, led by then-prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, did not respond kindly to the protests. On April 23, 2013, in the most notorious incident, Maliki’s forces shot and killed more than 40 protesters at a sit-in in the town of Hawija. Several cabinet ministers resigned as a result, and unrest and fighting between angered JRTN militiamen and Iraqi forces erupted around Hawija for two days.

All of this comes without even mentioning the continued tensions over oil rights and budget percentages between the Kurdish government in the north – parliamentarians of which actually threatened to boycott the Iraqi government if they did not get the right percentage of the national budget for Kurdistan from the Maliki government. These elements, combined with a growing friendship between the governments in Baghdad and Tehran, led to a disastrous 2014 for Iraq.

This all started coming to a head in December 2013, when the Maliki government tried to break a sit-in in Ramadi. By December 30, Maliki’s government claimed that the sit-in was over, only for fighting to break out, resulting in the resignations of dozens of Iraqi MPs. A few days later, Islamist forces, including members of what was by now ISIL, took parts of Ramadi and Fallujah.

By June 5, the country was in turmoil as ISIL invaded Mosul, taking the city in full on June 10. By August 3, much of the North had fallen to ISIL (including the Mosul Dam for ten days) and by the end of October, it would consolidate most of its power in Anbar.

There’s not enough space here to explain the intricacies of this year in Iraq in detail, but it is at least important to quickly outline the factions that emerged throughout the country.

For the most part, the Sunni community split down the lines that they had during the last insurgency, with supporters of ISIL and its allied groups coming from the parts of the Sunni community most disenfranchised by policies like de-Baathification, as well as the obvious true believers in the Islamist and Baathist messages. Those Sunni families that had been pro-Sons of Iraq during the so-called “Awakening” stayed pro-government (though not without some bitterness about how Baghdad took their weapons away after the first war). But for the most part, the average Sunni chose to stay neutral.

The Shia militancy was split, for the most part, into the more populist Sadrist-type militia, the official Iraqi Security Forces and pro-Iranian militias (such as Kata’ib Hizbollah and its ilk).

The Kurdish forces were composed mostly of the official peshmerga – split between the PUK fighters that dominate areas such as Kirkuk and Diyala, and PDK fighters dominating areas such as Rabia, Zumar, Makhmour and so on. They were joined by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates which set up shop in the areas of Sinjar, Makhmour and Kirkuk, mostly.

This does not mean everyone plays nice. The continued battle for Sinjar is a perfect example. Here the PKK, the PDK and myriad tribal groups compose an estimated total of about 1,900 fighters; most likely far superior to any ISIL force in the area. However, many of the PKK groups refuse to work with the PDK groups and vice versa. This means that both sides are left with what they admit is a decided dearth of manpower, separating the total force into much smaller chunks of men that can get very little accomplished on their own. This has led, more or less, to a stalemate.

In Jalula, meanwhile, Shia militias and the peshmerga both operate along the front line. But while neither group is hostile to the other, that does not mean they get along.

As Iraq ends the first year of this new conflict, the eyes of the world on it again, there isn’t a clear path out of the woods. Most of the political underpinnings that led to the war have been simmering since the US left Iraq in 2011 and no one has a solution to fix the chaos in the long run. The country has become mired this year in a pool of its own blood, sharing each new horror on social media along the way.

There are some signs that the basic problems may be worked out. Most recently, for example, prime minister Haider Al Abadi and president Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish government have worked out an agreement on budgets and oil rights for Kurdistan and Iraq (though members of the Kurdish government have made clear the new agreement doesn’t deal with the budget and profits from 2014.)

What’s more, ISIL has begun to slow down as the year comes to a close. Since the group’s consolidation of power in Anbar in October, the jihadis haven’t made any real gains in Iraq, while the Kurdish government and the Iraqi federal government (with their militant and militia allies) have made significant gains over the autumn in places like Baiji, Rabia, and Zumar in the North. But as the nasty weather of an Iraqi winter sets in across the country, things can be expected to slow down a bit.

Driving through Rabia now is like driving through a ghost town. Plastic palm trees line the main streets, seemingly untouched by the fighting that has happened here since August. Near the front lines, peshmerga fighters point towards the nearby town of Tel Samir, ISIL’s closest holding. The land between the two towns is flat and barren, and nothing is moving in between. Looking towards Tel Samir, one of the officers claims there aren’t more than 10 ISIL fighters there, but there doesn’t appear to be any immediate plan of taking it. One of the diggers scoops a moundful of dirt in the background.

See all our Year in Review coverage

Jonathan Krohn is a freelance journalist based in Erbil.

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM


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