Iraq: Understanding the coup in Mosul and its consequences

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Iraqi men take part in a demonstration to show their support for the call to arms by Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the city of Najaf on June 13, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Haider Hamdani)

By: Alaa al-Lami

Published Saturday, June 14, 2014

There is a huge difference between the conspiratorial interpretation of events and the interpretation of an actual conspiracy, which many tend to overlook, namely, that the former is a subjective view that holds everything is a plot by the enemies – where even sand storms that hit Iraq could be a conspiracy – while explaining an actual conspiracy, entails a realistic analysis of causes, effects, and evidence thereof, with the intention of understanding a real conspiracy that has been planned and executed by one side against another. Major conspiracies are not rare throughout history, and some historians have even stated that history is nothing but a long series of plots.

In a recent speech, hours after Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to radical Islamic insurgents, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the collapse of the government forces in the city was a conspiracy. Some on social media, including myself, saw this as a continuation of the old tradition adopted by the defeated, though I had reservations about this view in the end.

Indeed, when Maliki used the terms “deception” and “coordinated rumors” to describe what had happened, I recalled immediately what the late Baathist leader Hani al-Fekaiki once revealed. Fekaiki was one of the masterminds of the military coup of February 8, 1963. In his book, the “Dens of Defeat,” he wrote, “We have toppled the regime of Abdul Karim Kassem with the weapon of rumors.” In truth, the Baath regime used psychological warfare very skillfully, as many experts assert.

The facts are starting to unfold. What happened in Mosul was a “special kind of military coup” that the faction led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri had been working on silently, patiently, and cunningly for a long time, until it finally managed to plant a complex and formidable network of former officers who had been excluded during the de-Baathification from the military in favor of more favored officers according to the sectarian quota system, especially in the provinces of Nineveh and Salah al-Din. ISIS was used as a “husk” in which their move was embedded, in order to terrorize their opponents, as part of a cynical nihilistic alliance.

Nihilistic because the time when the Baath can plan, execute, and triumph then rule the country for decades is behind us for good. The facts on the ground in Mosul and Tikrit will no doubt dispel the dreams of Douri and his militias in a matter of months, if not weeks, though this unfortunately will be very bitter and painful for the Iraqis in those regions.

The first nightmare that Douri will have to deal with is the inevitable clash between his men and the jihadis from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other groups. In effect, clashes as such almost erupted very recently when portraits of Douri were put up for display in the areas seized by the insurgents. Ultimately, however, what is certain is that this coup has moved to implement the plan for the partition of Iraq in earnest, and opened the door wide to direct intervention by regional powers Iran and Turkey, as well as Western and other world powers.

Maliki’s speech was inconsistent, superficial, and betrayed his confusion. It seems that his primary goal was to increase the morale of his allies and partners in government, with no signs that he has any regrets, or that he could ever tire of the misinformation and lies of his military leaders and advisers, even when he is facing a dangerous and earthshaking military defeat.

Maliki said there was a conspiracy behind the fall of Mosul, claiming that he knew the names and details of those who launched rumors and ordered troops to withdraw, even though they were more than capable to repel the attack on the city. Yet hours later, Tikrit – no less – fell to the insurgents as well. So did Maliki know the details there too, but did not have enough time to avoid the second strike? It is not clear.

Maliki’s remarks suggest there was a security breach in the army command in Mosul, engineered by ISIS and Douri’s faction in the Baath Party. This is very plausible if not very likely, but the problem and the cause of the defeat in Nineveh at the hands of ISIS and the Baath insurgency does not lie there, but with the prime minister and his partners in the sectarian political process. For one thing, Maliki and his partners have failed to end this process or at least make it viable, because it was created by the U.S. occupation as an antithesis to the pluralism and diversity of Iraqi society.

Maliki failed to achieve real national and communal reconciliation. He failed on services, he failed on security, and he became an enabler of corruption and a protector of the corrupt in his government. His government exacerbated sectarian and ethnic polarization in the country, and as a result of all of this, the political process continued to rot and decay. Patriotic and democratic Iraqis opposed to the occupation and sectarianism had warned against the consequences of this for Iraq’s unity and existence so many times that their voices went hoarse.

ISIS and its allies’ takeover of the capital of northern Iraq and other cities, and the events of the past few days, is an official death certificate for the sectarian political process. Maliki has only two options now: Drown Iraq in a devastating and protracted civil war that no side will win; or – and this is the second option that I believe Maliki does not have the courage to pursue – end the sectarian political process and call a constitutional convention with the participation of all political forces and community leaders to amend the constitution and launch a national political process that would criminalize political sectarianism, and declare a secular and civil state based on the principles of citizenship rather than on confessional foundations, as the occupiers and their allies wanted.

Otherwise, in a month or two, Maliki will still be peddling the same claims, except that thousands more Iraqis will have been killed, injured, or driven out from their homes, and many more cities will have been razed to the ground, while the unity of Iraq and its people will be up in the air.

But, how was the Mosul coup executed?

According to events on the ground, and an analysis of testimonials and news reports, we believe that two main factions took part in the attack: Douri’s Baath faction, which was in charge of planning and planting Baathist officers in the government troops leadership and preparing hundreds of fighters as part of the Naqshbandi militias, to replace the Baath’s defunct militias, and Takfiri groups like ISIS, Ansar al-Sunna, and others, who provided well-trained fighters. This is in addition to tribal-sectarian forces led by people like Harith al-Dhari, who gave his blessings to the coup from Amman, Ali Hatem, and clerics like Rafi Rifai and Abdul Malik al-Saadi, who have always claimed that the Iraqi army is an “occupation army” in the Western regions. Meanwhile, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to the news website Al-Badil Al-Iraqi, the gunmen who first stormed Mosul were mostly non-Iraqis. Later on, those gunmen were replaced by Iraqi militants spotted protecting banks and public installations, while the foreign fighters moved on to other battlefronts.

The plot was carried out smoothly and easily at the predetermined zero hour, which the coup leadership had relayed to its “moles” inside the Iraqi army in the provinces of Nineveh and Salah al-Din. Thus, senior army commanders such as the Deputy Chief of Staff Abboud Qanbar and Land Forces Commander Ali Ghaidan found themselves without an army or middle-ranking officers, and their only option was to request to be evacuated by Kurdish militias to the nearby city of Erbil.

The commander of Nineveh Operations Mahdi Gharrawi was able to escape a similar fate, as he had at the time been at the headquarters of one of his brigades on the outskirts of Mosul, in al-Khazer region. Kurdish parties have attempted to smear the man and forged a picture showing him with the Peshmerga militia behind him, but he succeeded in proving that he had not left his position and that he was in the process of regrouping his forces.

It is worth noting that the Peshmerga have played a suspicious role in the events in Mosul, with reports that the Kurdish militia was forcing retreating Iraqi soldiers to undress and put on civilian clothes, before photographing them in a manner that suggested they were fleeing from the battle.

Consequences of the Mosul coup

Of the major consequences on the medium and long terms for the Mosul coup orchestrated by Douri and his allies in the suicidal Salafi groups, we highlight the following:

Iraq is on the path to being partitioned into sectarian mini-states, or at least, the provinces of Nineveh, Tikrit, and parts of Diyala could be carved out of Iraq by force of arms. However, Anbar’s special tribal circumstances make it difficult to implement a similar plan there. Indeed, in Anbar, an Iraqi national identity remains strongly rooted, and a plan to turn the province into an autonomous region was thwarted despite all the clamoring by strong parties to this end. Hostility to Takfiri groups is strong throughout the province as well, with the exception of Fallujah perhaps, though there are local frictions that were not visible in the recent past, and which now mar relations between communities and clans in Anbar and Nineveh.

The door is now wide open to regional intervention, especially by Iran, with its sectarian calculations and concerns regarding Western belligerence, and Turkey, which has similar calculations in addition to its old ambitions in the “Province of Mosul” of the Ottoman Empire. The door is also open to Western intervention, which could take the form of a direct albeit gradual comeback by U.S. occupation forces into Iraq, or at least, the form of substantial backing for the sectarian system in a way that would ensure further dependency on the United States.

The Mosul coup has put an end to the idea of stopping or even tapering de-Baathification in the context of the Accountability and Justice law. Instead, the current government might launch a violent and comprehensive campaign against Baathists, and it will no longer be easy for democratic and left-wing voices demanding an end to or a tapering of de-Baathification – or to have it deemed a criminal rather than a political process – to restate these demands. For one thing, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Baath’s chronic obsession with plots and coups is incurable, which will mean that thousands of innocents are set to pay the price for Douri’s folly and power hunger […].

The coup will be the final nail in the coffin of “Saddamism” and militia-minded forces in Iraq, and will strengthen the flames of sectarian polarization and open the door to sectarian fighting among Iraq's Arabs. In the process, a new disgraceful episode has been added to the record of Saddam’s Baath Party, while its enemies will note that the Baath had cooperated with Western intelligence in the past to carry out its coups, the Baath under Douri is collaborating with extremist groups who have killed scores of his people, and suicide bombers who blew up Iraqi civilians in the streets and houses […]. This may push some Iraqi Baathists loyal to their ideas and experience to oppose what happened, although we are not very optimistic about this.

The coup will cause the loss of the oil-rich and ethnically diverse province of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The province has been practically under occupation by the Kurdish Peshmerga since June 12. Not many Sunni Arabs will rush to defend it after what happened in Mosul and Tikrit. However, the Anbar province may reach out to the provinces of the center and the south to form the nucleus of a different Iraq that would end the sectarian militia-led mini-states in Mosul and elsewhere, if the sectarian system in Baghdad falls.

On the flip side of this gloomy picture, the coup could also spell the end for the era of sectarian power-sharing and the constitution drafted by the occupation, having proven its threat to the unity of Iraq, its territorial integrity, and the wellbeing of its people. The question now is this: How can this era be practically ended, to launch the process to build an Iraq based on citizenship and equality, atop the ruins of the Iraq of sects and quotas?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


"It is worth noting that the Peshmerga have played a suspicious role in the events in Mosul, with reports that the Kurdish militia was forcing retreating Iraqi soldiers to undress and put on civilian clothes, before photographing them in a manner that suggested they were fleeing from the battle" do you even read what you write?

I hope you understand the difference between retreating and fleeing...

Excellent, congratulations. We represent independent media in Central Europe, Czech republic. You give us lucid insight into very difficult situation in Iraq. Thanks.

One of the main instruments of racism is the claim (the rumor, as the writer here would say) that the despised population is stupid. This article is so intelligent, well, why can't Lebanon rise to its standards as a state?
Someone made a metaphor about a farm and its barnyard, thick with manure, where the little birds make their nests (I don't know of such birds, but that's the story). If the birds one day stick up their heads out of their nests in the manure and say, "I'm tired of living in manure," the metaphor warns that the house-cat may come along and eat them.
There is a long tradition among the racially-despised (we are all one race until we start arbitrarily dividing ourselves into multiple races) of justifying their own subjugation so as to attain minimal comfort.
I like to say that "comfort" means "with strength": con- + fortis.
Are you really comfortable with things as they are?

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