An Update from Iraq

I have spent the past week traveling around the Kurdish Region of Iraq conducting research on the behalf of FPRI and the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. For the past two days, IRIS held the Suli Forum. Now in its fifth year, the Suli Forum has emerged as one of the top policy forums in the Middle East. The Forum mostly looked ahead to the strategic landscape facing the region after ISIS. However, we also received updates on the current situation in Mosul from Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, who commands Iraq’s venerable Counter Terrorism Service and thus leads Iraqi counter-ISIS operations. We also heard news about Mosul from the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, various Kurdish Peshmerga Commanders, and a representative from the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces (which have been accused of carrying out a number of atrocities). Many of the views that these figures expressed were challenged by fellow participants and audience members, but the picture that they presented about the current status of the operation to retake Mosul is generally as follows:

Everyone acknowledges, at least tacitly, that the human cost of Iraqi operations to take other cities in the campaign against ISIS has been unacceptable. The military used heavy weapons in densely populated areas. The Popular Mobilization Forces, which consist mostly of Shi‘i militias that were created (or at least reinvigorated) following the ISIS assault on Iraq in 2014, have been undisciplined and unaccountable. Thus, operations to take cities such as Tikrit and Ramadi over the past couple of years nearly destroyed those cities. Had the same tactics been used in the much larger city of Mosul, the result would have been a humanitarian nightmare. Therefore, the Iraqis are attempting a different strategy. Lt. Gen Shaghati insists that no Popular Mobilization Forces have entered the city and that only light weapons are being used (though these points were disputed by some other participants). The Iraqi Army is also applying well-worn counterinsurgency tactics quite effectively for the first time. They are moving slowly to prevent the destruction of infrastructure (the battle for Mosul began in October and it is still ongoing). And the general insisted that civilians in Mosul were his number one priority. He claims that Iraqi forces regularly put their own lives in danger to win the respect and trust of the local population. This required not only new tactics, but also significant changes in the structure of the Army. For example, under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Counter Terrorism Service had been considered a sectarian arm of the Shi‘i led government, but recent reforms have changed its essence. The service now consists of members from all of Iraq’s sects, and if any member openly touts their sectarian identity, they are removed from the unit.

While there are good reasons to be cynical about many of these claims, the operation to liberate the sections of Mosul on the eastern bank of the Tigris River have been much more successful than Iraqi operations in other cities. Over 80 neighborhoods in Mosul are now controlled by the Iraqi Army, though ISIS sleeper cells remain and attacks are still common. Unlike in Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi, the civilians in liberated eastern Mosul have largely remained in their homes and neighborhoods.

These facts mark a real and positive shift in the manner in which the Iraqi military is operating. However, there are still a number of challenges ahead as well as many unanswered questions. The Iraqi Army has yet to liberate Mosul’s old city, which everyone agrees will be much more difficult due to its narrow, winding streets and dense population. Seventy-five percent of Mosul’s population lives in this unliberated part of the city, and it is considered ISIS’s stronghold. One could easily see the Iraqi assault bogging down there. Moreover, some participants challenged the rosy picture of a “clean” operation in eastern Mosul that the Iraqi government and military presented. Some unofficial casualty reports reach into the thousands, and recent stories have leaked claiming that heavy weapons were indeed employed in Mosul, leveling homes and infrastructure (though the government and military deny these claims). Moreover, while the government insists that it takes human rights violations seriously, Lt. Gen Shaghati was only able to provide one instance in which soldiers or militia members were punished for such abuses. Finally, the Yazidis do not feel that the military or the Iraqi government has done enough to find and free the captured Yazidi women who ISIS has been using as sex slaves. One Yazidi leader lamented the fact that thousands of these women were in Mosul and nearby towns, but that rescuing them has not been a priority for the government forces.

So, to sum up, the general feeling here is one of cautious optimism. Most stakeholders seem to believe that the military, while far from perfect, is successfully refining its strategy to fight ISIS. They also believe that the liberation of Mosul, while moving slowly, will ultimately succeed. What will happen in Iraq following that liberation remains a matter of wild conjecture.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Field Notes: Reading Lolita in Kurdistan

            Two European-looking young men are sitting in the back of the minibus, which I boarded at a sprawling open-air taxi market in Erbil, Iraq. Slender and projecting exotic Western cool, Asin has thin, curly slick black hair and sports a lock of unshaven fuzz on his chin. He is tucked into the back right corner and is reading a Persian translation of Lolita. Sitting next to him, Ako, his traveling companion, looks absentmindedly out the window. With light hazel eyes and curly red hair, Ako wears casual mountaineering clothes and carries a BlackYak climbing backpack. He looks like a German ski bum.*

            The minibus is bound for Sulaymaniyah, a three hour drive west counting stops for security screening at checkpoints and breaks to use restrooms and get chai. Although we would drive through Kirkuk, where one of the checkpoints we pass through would be attacked the next day, this trip is, thus far, uneventful and quiet. Then, as hospitable travelers are wont to do for their journeying compatriots, Ako smiles, gestures, and offers to buy me tea.

            Now the trip gets more interesting.


            “Where are you from?” I ask. We are sitting on plastic chairs underneath a canvas sun shade, enjoying our chai break on the mild sunny day. This is the first question every traveler asks when getting to know someone new. The answer reveals everything. If it is answered with a smile and shrug, your new friend does not know English but, since they bought you tea, sees you as someone they want to know anyway. Or maybe they will not answer truthfully, since travelers could have any number of reasons for masking the truth of their origins.

            Ako smiles. “Iran. But I am Kurdish.” He and Asin, his brother are from neighboring Mahabad, a Kurdish city about four hours from Sulaymaniyah. Although they tell me they are tourists passing through, I sense there is more to the story. I wonder if our limited grasp of each other’s languages has reduced our capacity to connect. Ako speaks English slowly, and I cannot tell if that is because he does not know it well or if it is because he is sizing me up.

            “What do you do?” Ako asks. “Why are you here?” I tell him I am a writer, and he smiles, and whispers something to Asin, who also smiles. “He is also a writer,” Ako says, pointing to Asin. “He likes… (‘How do you say?’)… romance.” Ako is 23 and says he is a baker, but he cannot or will not tell me where he works or what he bakes.

            We shuffle back to the minibus. Asin returns to Lolita and Ako switches seats next to me. Ako’s English is good, as is his Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Persian (Farsi). He seems uncharacteristically athletic for a professional baker. “I am a mountain climber,” Ako says. We discuss his watch, his backpack, his gear. “I climbed Khustup in Armenia,” he says, referring to a 3000-meter peak, “but my dream is Everest. And K2.” Whenever he says a mountain’s name, Ako stops and goes into a small reverie, softly punctuating the mountain’s memory with a small phrase, like “beautiful” or “so good.”  

            But Ako’s dream is constrained by politics. “At 18, I had to go in the Iranian Army,” he says. “For two years, my life is nothing. I am a soldier for Iran. I cannot go home to see my father or mother. I want to go to college and be working.” Ako looks at me pointedly. “This is fucking my dream.”

            Indeed it is. Because Ako is a former Iranian soldier, all the places he wants to visit are off limits to his visa applications. His military background also seems to be preventing him from getting an Iranian passport, although it appears he has made other regional visits—such as the one he and Asin are doing now—on local travel documents. Iraqi Kurdistan authorities have granted Ako and Asin 45-day tourist visas to visit Sulaymaniyah. It appears they have other plans besides tourism.

            We are driving in the mountains now, and Ako is happy. He says he has been here before, and points to a rock face where I snap a picture. “I was climbing there and then the police came and said ‘You cannot climb here!’” Ako laughs, then gets quiet. “So good… so good.” I stop and imagine Ako at a base camp near Half-Dome at Yosemite National Park, or talking with Marines on a weekend leave from mountain warfare training at Lake Tahoe.

            We are close to Sulaymaniyah now, and, suddenly, I realize Ako’s plan. Something connects with both of us, and he figures out that I get it. “They need workers here in Sulaymaniyah,” Ako says. “If I can get a work visa, and if I stay for three years, I may be able to get an Iraqi passport.” But it wouldn’t be just any passport: Ako could get an Iraqi Kurdistan passport. Ako knows this region is looked at favorably around the world, and, as such, it may be his only chance at the mountains. Although Ako may be the first person I’ve met who has coveted an Iraqi passport of any kind, it is clear to me that, like many Mexicans I have met planning to enter the United States, Ako intends to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan whether or not it is legal for him to do so.

            Ako mentions another peak in Armenia. I ask if that is on his list. “I’ll tell you my list,” he says. “One: work for money. Two: go become a tourist.” What about your brother, I ask? “He will have to go back,” Ako jerks his head, gesturing towards authorities. “To keep up appearances.”

            We arrive in Sulaymaniyah. In two hours, I’ve grown fond of Ako. I have appreciated him trusting me with his story, and tell him so. He nods and smiles. We exchange contact information, although Ako suggests I won’t hear from him for awhile. “I do not even have a girlfriend,” he says. “I am a climber.”  I tell him maybe someday it will not be so difficult for him to travel. “Maybe someday there will be freedom in Iran,” Ako says. “Maybe, maybe. Always maybe.” We embrace and part ways.

            I hail a taxi and look for the pair. They have disappeared. Somewhere, Ako has his BlackYak climbing backpack slung over his shoulder. And Asin carries his copy of Lolita.

* Given the risks to the article subjects, pseudonyms have been used for identity protection.

Tags: , , ,