Bracketed by high-level trips to Saudi Arabia and Iran the Prime Minister of Iraq sought to remove one of the country’s most famous soldiers, Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saadi of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service. He may have gambled and gotten more pushback than he expected as Iraqis are now criticizing the decision and wondering what motivated it.
Al-Saadi was deputy-chief of the CTS, the country’s most well known military unit. It was the men of the CTS, in their black fatigues, that led the battle against ISIS and were at the tip of the spear going into such hard-fought battles as Mosul. They were considered professional fighters and honest soldiers, free from the sectarian abuses of the Shi’ite militias and other groups. Al-Saadi was one of the most famous faces of the unit, a heroic commander who was known for the love of the common soldiers and civilians.
And yet, without any warning or clarity the commander was apparently ordered transferred to a ministerial role, a decision he has called an insult and humiliation. He has been outspoken, breaking ranks and speaking to Iraqi media about the decision. This has led to questions about the politics behind the removal. Some reports indicate that the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that also have a political party in parliament, might have lobbied for his dismissal. This leads to questions about Iran’s involvement and allegations that the PMU are seeking to become Iraq’s version of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reducing the army’s power and creating a separate armed force. Removing a key CTS commander might help pave the way for increased PMU power. Already the sectarian militias have rebranded themselves as an official force with government salaries and have also infiltrated the Federal Police, according to critics.
According to reports over the weekend some senior politicians in Iraq are concerned. This includes Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr. What comes next remains to be seen.
Albukamal crossing re-opens
A key border crossing between Syria and Iraq re-opened on Monday after a month of delays and mysterious airstrikes had caused concern about what might be going on there. The Albukmal-Al Qaim border crossing is a key conduit for re-establishing links between Iraq and Syria, but it is also controversial because of concerns that it may enable Iran to move militias and weapons across. Iran likely didn’t need a public ceremony to move weapons secretly, so the real significance is that it brings into the open a crossing that was ostensibly closed for years.
Albukamal and Al-Qaim were seized by ISIS and affiliated groups in 2014 and ISIS used it as a hub to connect its areas in Syria and Iraq. At the time this sleepy border area seemed less consequential. However in 2017 the Syrian regime and Iraqi forces made their way back to the border. This led to concerns that members of Iranian-backed militias, often called the Popular Mobilization Units, might use the area to transfer people and weapons across the border. This seemed to be the case in 2017 when elements of Kata’aib Hezbollah, a group sanctioned by the US which is part of the PMU, moved some units to the Syrian side from Iraq. Mysterious airstrikes struck some of these militias in the summer of 2018 and again in the summer and fall of 2019 as reports emerged that Iran was building a base near Albukamal. On September 9 airstrikes ripped apart warehouses at the alleged base, and more airstrikes in mid and late September have hit some areas near the crossing. Nevertheless, after more than a year of waiting for the border itself to open the day finally arrived on September 30.
Monday Syrian state TV SANA was on location to celebrate the opening, which feels like a national success for the Syrian regime. Photos of Bashar al-Assad, the president, festooned the area. Journalists were invited and soldiers and others were cheerful. Interior Minister Mohammed Khaled al-Rahmoun was present and gave a short statement. He stressed this “great achievement” of Syria and praised the sacrifices of the Syrian army and the Iraqis against “terrorists.” At least eight posters of Assad, in various poses, looked on, signaling that the Syrian regime has gone to its usual lengths to stress that one person is very important in this endeavor. To get to the crossing one must pass through one roundabout with a photo of Assad and then around a second poster of Assad before reaching the final Assad poster at the crossing itself.
On the Iraqi side things were a bit more boring. There are mostly Iraqi flags, shown on the film of the opening, and less people were present. The PMU is very proud and one post from the location claimed that the PMU will “hold the security file” at the border. It is great “commercial significance,” the source wrote. “It is a blow to America and the forces supporting terrorism,” say PMU supporters. This is interesting because it is US forces in the anti-ISIS Coalition who have assisted the Iraqi Security forces in defeating ISIS. Yet the PMU, which is paid official government salaries as part of the security forces, regularly incite against the US, pushing conspiracies claiming the US supports ISIS.
Photos showed police at the site and soldiers. Iraqis and Syrians posed together for some photos. No one seemed jittery, despite reports almost every day over the last week indicating alleged airstrikes in the area. Al-Masdar even reported yesterday that air defense was activated in the area. Image Sat International published photos following up on allegations that construction at an Iranian “Imam Ali” base was ongoing near the crossing.
The opening comes the same day that the chief of the IRGC in Iran, Hossein Salami, said the goal of Iran was to destroy Israel. “Destroying the Zionist entity is not just a dream anymore,” he said, according to reports. That may lead to concerns that the crossing will be part of Iran’s “land bridge” stretching across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon which Iran uses to support its allies across the region, including IRGC bases in Syria, Hezbollah and also Shi’ite militias in Iraq. For instance on August 24 Israel struck an IRGC-backed “killer drone” team near the Golan. On September 9 Shi’ite militias near Damascus tried to fire a rocket at Israel. Hezbollah is seeking precision guidance for its 150,000 missiles. If the PMU holds the security file at the Al-Qaim side of the crossing then this will lead to concerns that militias linked to the IRGC may exploit the crossing.
Abdul Mahdi blames Israel for airstrikes
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that “investigations into the targeting of some Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) positions indicate that Israel carried it out,” in his first direct comments blaming Jerusalem. This is the first time he spoke so clearly about a series of mysterious attacks since July that have targeted munitions facilities of the PMF. The PMU are a group of mostly Shi’ite militias, some of which are closely tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In the past voices in Iraq have sought to blame Israel but have been reticent to do so clearly. Elements within the PMU have instead held the US responsible, claiming that the US allowed Israel to carry out the attacks. These reports appeared in foreign Arabic media sometimes, but there was not a robust response because the PMU didn’t know what the best response was. So why would Abdul-Mahdi, who faces many challenges at home, decide to blame Israel now?
It appears that the Iraqi Prime Minister is blaming Israel at this juncture because he is being targeted for criticism for removing a key member of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) named Lt. General Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi. Al-Saadi was aa popular deputy commander of the CTS, Iraq’s most elite unit. He played a key role defeating ISIS. However he was suddenly sidelined last week and the Prime Minister is being criticized across the political spectrum. However Abdul-Mahdi’s office has said the decision is irreversible and has said Al-Saadi must adhere to it. In addition rumors have been spread against the commander, suggesting he visited foreign embassies. The Prime Minister sought to blame the CTS for the decision on Monday, suggesting that the chief of staff wanted Al-Saadi out of the way.
The Iraqi Prime Minister has said that “no one wants war in the region except for Israel.” However a large context looms. He was recently in Saudi Arabia and is now supposed to travel to Iran. Iran’s IRGC head Hossein Salami spoke on Monday, threatening to destroy Israel. In addition Iran’s Tasnim is taking credit for getting the US to re-position air force assets away from Qatar, claiming its drones scare the Americans. In addition Iraq and Syria re-opened a border crossing at Albukamal on Monday close to an alleged Iranian base that has been targeted. The PMU will be responsible for security on the Iraqi side, according to locals.
It is difficult not to see a link between Albukamal, Salami, the US air force in Qatar, and the comments about Israel. This is all about how Iran perceives the region and how its allies in Baghdad also see the region. For the Prime Minister it was a good time to point a finger at Israel because Iran is positioning itself into a place of strength. “Our enemies are weakened,” said Salami at his speech. The enemy is retreating, Iran says, arguing that the “destruction of the Zionists” is not longer just a dream.
Iran’s President went to Armenia on September 30 and said Iran wants closer ties with its neighbors. Syria says it rejects foreign meddling in its affairs. Salami threatens Israel. Iranian media emphasizes that Saudi Arabia does not want conflict, despite the attack on its facilities on September 14. Iran is preparing a full-court press against Israel. The comments by Baghdad blaming Israel for airstrikes comes in that context.
Up to sixty people were reported injured and one killed in protests that swept Baghdad on Tuesday. The protesters gathered in the afternoon at Tahrir square, with thousands streaming across bridges that line the Euphrates. The police and security forces used water cannons and then live ammunition against the demonstrators.
The protesters gathered for a variety of reasons, at least one of which was the recent dismissal of a popular counter-terrorism commander named Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. Anger also boiled over against corruption and failed government investment in infrastructure projects. In general people are angry that two years after the war on ISIS largely ended, the benefits have not dripped down to the average person. Protesters tried to reach the Green Zone and cross the Jumhuriya bridge. Scenes showed smoke, tear gas and clashes.
Overnight on Monday there were concerns among the security forces that protests would begin on Tuesday. They had to wait most of the day for it to happen and when the people gathered, many of them carrying Iraqi flags, they were peaceful. But the security forces waded into them anyway, using tear gas, water cannons and other methods. Locals brought photos of Al-Saadi, the dismissed counter-terrorism commander, who was pushed aside under mysterious circumstances by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
By nightfall it appeared around fifty to sixty people had been injured and, depending on the reports, one or several killed. Video showed some severe injuries and live fire could be heard in many videos.
There are several controversies sweeping Iraq today, including looming indictments against other officers in the army. There will be provincial elections in April and candidates are already jockeying for various lists. Iraq leaders also seem to be a bit absent with the Prime Minister recently going to Saudi Arabia and a leader of the Popular Mobilization Units also out of the country. Muqtada Al-Sadr appeared weakened after he went to Iran for Ashura celebrations in September.
The protests are the largest since the summer of 2018 when protests roiled Basra. At the time there was pronounced anger against Iran and Iranian-backed parties in Iraq. In May 2016 protesters stormed the parliament and Green Zone. These kinds of yearly protests are therefore symbolic of a larger anger and malaise, in which there are feelings that the government has systematically failed people year after year.