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Iraq: ISIS Blends In, Trouble Brewing

[Disclaimer/Proclaimer: To Friends/Readers/Browsers: Occasionally, I will include in this blog a strictly news-oriented report out of the nation's capitol, Washington DC, reflecting my own effort as a journalist. Since I do have access to newsmakers from time to time, it is important, I think, to share factual developments or informed opinions that have implications for our wider world and its citizens. From my perch here in Arlington, Virginia, it is my firm belief that mainstream media outlets and a proliferation of poorly educated and biased bloggers are not serving well those Americans who care about the details of developments in a very complex and diversified political and social landscape.

Anyone who reads Capitol Scooper, or most of my posts in fact, must be willing to put a little time into the exercise. Knowledge does not often follow from glancing at tweets and facebook announcements. I do ask everyone to invite new readers, though, and not to shy away from airing your own views and experiences here. ( I will have to arbitrate and edit comments, however).

Scattered amongst future musings and photo postings on the adventures of travel, I will identify these occasional journalistic reports as the "Capitol Scooper." A scooper is a handy tool to help sort and bag real facts and opinions in a town where fact and fiction have become a very fuzzy (and smelly) commodity.

Unfortunately, here in my first blog based on a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute last week, I have to disavow any implication that I am a hacker. The New York Times chose today unfortunately to allege that unknown Russian-linked hackers have singled out conservative think tanks in DC, including the Hudson Institute (named in the article), as a base for circulating mis-information. The coincidence is curious and ironic given that this is my first report on a Hudson Institute event and that I myself have been highly critical of the Institute in the past (given its significant funding from Jewish organizations and individuals). I do not lean conservative or liberal in my reporting and I know of no hackers -- I myself am quite clueless about Internet mechanics and am generally among the technical illiterate.]

Here is the first Capitol Scooper: (I choose to report on what I believe is important for global citizens to know for their own well-being, and will try to avoid inserting my own opinions or perspective without clearly identifying such views for what they are).

Capitol Scooper

Iraq: ISIS Blends In, Trouble Brewing

A panel discussion on August 17 in Washington D.C., sponsored by the Hudson Institute, aired a seeming near consensus among Middle East policy-trackers that all is not well in Iraq. That view may not be surprising in itself but (1) recent elections in Iraq (boycotted by more than half the voting-age public there), (2) relative reporting silence in the Western mainstream media, and (3) the evaporation of the brutal ISIS conflagration across Iraq and Syria, have smothered public angst among Washington's elite policymakers lately. President Trump has declared ISIS "defeated." The veneer of calm though was pierced by each of four guests invited by the Hudson Institute to discuss "Iraq: Political Parties, Protests, and Security."

The panelists included Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute; Vivian Salama, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (moderator); Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner fellow at The Washington Institute; and Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, a fellow and the director of the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute.

Among the surprising concessions of the members of the panel, according to the Institute's own summary of the event, "discontent persists, and many questions remain unanswered regarding the future of democracy of the country [Iraq]. Pressure on the country’s political elite has only been made worse by mounting tensions in the region, particularly between the U.S. and Iran, as well as a resurgence of ISIS and other militant groups." A fresh United Nations report issued in mid-August warns of a grave resurgence of ISIS, one panel member noted. The report to the Security Council by experts monitoring sanctions against IS and al-Qaida said the current total IS membership estimate in Iraq and Syria came from governments it did not identify. The estimate of between 20,000 and 30,000 members includes “a significant component of the many thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” the UN analysis concluded.

According to the panelists, the resurgence of militant groups, particularly a blend of reinvented ISIS operations and al-Qaeda, fed by persistent distrust between the ruling Shia government (and factions within) and its Sunni residents, is perhaps the most persistent, worrisome and self-evident chasm in Iraq today. As Iraq attempts to “write the next chapter of its history,” Wall Street Journal reporter Salama (the AP's Baghdad bureau chief from 2014 to 2016) remarked at the outset, "it’s a bumpy road."

Pregent, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Pregent is a former intelligence officer with experience in the Middle East and North Africa, and has achieved other foreign political and military credentials.

Pregent affirmed the cogency of the UN’s general warning, but discounted the insurgency membership numbers included in the world body’s report. Rising protests in Iraq following the elections last May, he stressed, are blaming nearly every status quo political party and leader, except Muqtada al-Sadr, for the deteriorating economic situation. The opposition is driven by largely a younger population (50% of Iraq’s inhabitants are under 30 years old, according to estimates). The disaffected population is looking for a relationship with the US that is “not military" and is rejecting status quo politicians, he stated.

The victory over ISIS in Iraq is "temporary," declared Pregent. Pregent described developments to date as only a first phase (stage) of the conflict, which currently merely represents the taking away of (destroying) territory. ISIS (Daesh) is now operating pursuant to the al-Qaeda model. Al-Qaeda was never more than 4,000 fighters wreaking havoc in Iraq during height of insurgency while the US was there. "ISIS has learned that unless you can shoot down American aircraft do not plant a black flag and don't claim new territory, because you will lose it." According to Pregent, “anytime you google any city in Iraq you can find an ISIS contact." At the same time ISIS is now looking for the high value target in Baghdad. The only way to defeat it is by empowering Sunnis to reject the group. The Sunnis must be given a reason to have renewed confidence in their central government in Baghdad.

And yet, the conditions have been set for an ISIS resurgence. “The Sunni population of Iraq now are more distrustful of the Baghdad government than ever." And Pregent insisted a disenfranchised population extends even beyond the Sunni communities to some of the Shiite citizens as well.

Finally, Pregent posited that American foreign policy under the Trump administration faces circumstances largely out of its own control. President Obama did not want the war in Iraq, “but he got it.” The Trump Administration declared it wants to end the war in Afghanistan. “We don't decide. What we have learned is that the only people capable of providing security are the local forces.” An existential threat keeps emerging in Iraq. That may be because it is in the best interests of various militias, suggested Pregent, that there be some degree of instability, thus validating foreign involvement.

Besides US objectives, other state interests exist -- including Russian-Iranian actions designed to protect against a western strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Former allies of the US are now courting Russia because they view the Russians as a major player in the region as the US withdraws. The US gets involved in something in the Middle East and then “automatically tells everyone when we are leaving. That doesn't build trust and confidence with the forces we are dealing with," stated Pregent.

Comments of panelist Bilal Wahab sometimes paralleled the remarks of Pregent. Wahab stated directly, "The existing coalitions have not been able to ensure the security for the country." The existing governing structure was created to effectively include everyone in it (with no leadership or taking of ownership), but “has not been able to deliver in terms of government." The public wants services (like clean drinking water), jobs, less corruption and bureaucracy. There is now evidence of a significant opposition forming in Iraq that could be a precursor to more political maturity in the country. But “while people want to move on, the parties [key players in the war] want to cash in on their achievements.”

Wahab agreed that the ISIS problem is now a more difficult challenge that it was even before. Their operational infrastructure must be dismantled, but most of underlying factors that empowered ISIS are still there. The Kurds, meanwhile, are essentially “bystanders,” possibly awaiting an opportunity in the near or even distant future, to renew their self-determination (independence) drive that has been currently stifled.

“If we are facing a resurgence, how are we going to face it if the US is reluctant to get involved again and Iran is facing growing economic turmoil," Salama asked the panel finally? There is some wishful thinking in Washington, replied Wahab, that Iraq is going to simply say yes to American demands when it comes to implementing sanctions on Iran. Yet Iran has the ability to sabotage the Iraqi economy.

[Wahab taught at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, where he established the Center for Development and Natural Resources, a research program on oil and development. He earned his Ph.D. from George Mason University and his M.A. from American University, where he was among the first Iraqis awarded a Fulbright scholarship. He earned his B.A. from Salahaddin University in Erbil, Iraq. He has written extensively in the Arabic and Kurdish media.]

The fourth panel member, Ahmad Majidyar, offered an independent perspective on the other nation state roles in Iraq. From 2008 to 2015, Majidyar worked as a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, where he co-authored two monographs on Iran. No matter what coalition government eventually materializes, he remarked, Iran will have a stake in it. Current Prime Minister Haider Jawad Kadhim al-Abadi until now has attempted to manage a balanced relationship between Iran and Washington, mostly successfully. Since the defeat of ISIS, however, Abadi is having problems keeping that balance. New tensions between Washington and Iran, and especially the renunciation of the Iran nuclear pact and resumption of sanctions by the US, put Abadi in a difficult position.

Majidyar echoed all members of the panel who acknowledged that other important players in the region, besides Iran, include Russia and China. While the Trump administration's focus is on counterterrorism and mainly supporting Abadi's second term, Majidyar noted, a continuing wider instability is merely aiding Iranian expansionism in Iraq. The more diversified the economy of Iraq, moreover, the more stable that country can be. Counter intuitively, the Trump administration's sanctions on Iranian trade just makes things more difficult because Iraq relies on many key services and supplies (food, gas and electricity) from its neighbor. Iran has been looking to offset the effect of US sanctions in Iraq and also for ways to lower its costs of filling Iraq’s security gaps. In that context, Majidyar hypothesized that a recent widespread integration of Iran-friendly militias into the broader national security forces of Iraq has been a benefit to Iran; reinforcing Iran's influence there while shifting the cost of maintaining the soldiers from Iran's budget to Iraq's central government.

--- ed boshart

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