Friday 19 January 2018

Baghdad sighs with relief as threat of siege recedes

* Iraqis joining militias l USA sends air carrier l Iran may ally with US

An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 350 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq.
An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 350 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq.

Martin Chulov

After five days of siege and foreboding, the citizens of Baghdad breathed easier yesterday. Old-world tea houses were once again brimming.

So were new militia recruitment centres, where would-be fighters signed up to defend the capital.

The city's collective relief stemmed from three live television addresses, only one of them made by an Iraqi.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said enough to convince most that he would soon send US jets to deal with the insurgents at the gates.

Hours later, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said an alarmed Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shia, would send whatever it took to stem the insurgent Sunni tide.

The alliance of common interests was perceived as a rebuff to Isis – a jihadist group so hardline it was disowned by al-Qaida. Isis has been rampaging through the country, pledging to rewrite the region's borders.

But it was a religious cleric who succeeded in steeling Iraqis for a fightback. The call to arms by the highest Shia authority in the land, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, mobilised in less than one day around a division of militiamen who, unlike the military, will not run from a fight with the insurgents.

Help is clearly on the way. And it could not come soon enough for many. "I heard the US president speak and his words seemed reasonable," said tribal leader Sheikh Abu Wissam al-Saade at a recruitment centre in the eastern suburb of Karrada, as three new volunteers arrived wanting to fight. "I would say one thing, though: he is partly to blame for this mess. He has been refusing to send us fighter jets for six years, because [Kurdish leader] Barzani has warned him not to."

Last night US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush to move from the North Arabian Sea to Gulf.

Karrada wears the scars of insurgency more than most places in Baghdad, with up to five bombs a month shattering its glitzy shopfronts since US forces withdrew.

Ground zero of the current threat, however, is around 60 miles to the north. Here, and in the city's vulnerable western approaches, the new volunteers are already preparing to confront Isis.

Iraq's immediate future seems sure to be determined by non-state actors and powerful foreign patrons.

So much for the state, which has done little more than reel in horror ever since the fall of its three largest cities to a small insurgent force in less than one week.

"With the scale of this crisis, all of the military units and the militia groups have melted into each other," said al-Saade. "The fighting force against Da'ash [Isis] has become a common entity."

Lost in the tumult between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias has been the moment of reckoning for the Kurds.

As the week closed, the extent of the Kurds' moves to capitalise on the central government crisis was becoming clear. The dramatic entry of the Kurdish Peshmurga forces into the disputed city of Kirkuk changed the balance of power between the seat of Kurdish power, Erbil, and Baghdad. Just as significant was the Peshmurga's move into other disputed areas, nearly as far south as Baquba.

One Iraqi army sergeant stationed in Jalula in central Iraq said that he was shocked as the Peshmurga rolled into his base last Thursday.

"They arrived at the battalion, talked to my commander and told him to surrender the whole unit's equipment and ammunition. They said they had spoken with the brigade commander. My commander called the brigade and he told them to give them what they wanted. He said he had spoken to the division leaders. Then they raised the Kurdish flag over our base. Overnight the Kurds became a state."

Other officers that claimed similar curious capitulations were repeated elsewhere. However last night it was reported that an airstrike by the Iraqi army killed at least seven Kurdish security force members in the eastern province of Diyala.

Hassan Rouhani's suggestion that Iran and the US could work together to defeat Isis is a new twist on "my enemy's enemy is my friend", but one that is sure to make life difficult for the insurgent group in the weeks ahead.

"Isis have a very effective media arm," said a senior Iraqi official. "They could teach the west about the art of propaganda. But when a real force stands and fights them – as they will in Baghdad – they cannot take this city."

© Observer

Sunday Independent

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