On The Iraqi Front Line, As ISIS Aims For Abu Ghraib

Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
Birgit Svensson

ABU GHRAIB — This city's streets are deserted. It would seem certain that the residents of Abu Ghraib fear the Da'ish, the Arabic word for ISIS, as fear has been the dominant emotion since the terrorists began conquering territory in Iraq.

And now, the terror organization is defending their gains with brute force. A uniformed officer at a checkpoint assures us that "it is not because of Da'ish" that no one is out and about. Instead, by way of explanation, he points towards the sky where the sun is at its zenith. It's nearly 40 °C (104 °F) in the shade, and he seems to be saying people aren't out because they are trying to keep cool.

Abu Ghraib is the first city reached when driving west from Baghdad into the province of Anbar. ISIS has attacked the town several times, its notorious prison always the goal.

In July 2013, ISIS managed to free 500 prisoners who were among al-Qaeda"s core. They apparently fled to Syria next, where they were integrated into the hierarchical structures of ISIS, and returned to their former home of Fallujah at the beginning of last year. Now they reign over the city together with Tunisian and French ISIS fighters. The offensive started two days ago and has brought Ramadi, the capital of the province, under sole ISIS control.

To reach Brigadier General Ali Abdul Hussein Khadim, it's necessary to pass through 11 checkpoints, despite the fact that his headquarters is just 50 kilometers from Baghdad. And it's only another 30 to reach Ramadi, where, since Sunday night, the black ISIS flag has been flying above the governor's palace.

From the very beginning, the largest Iraqi province of Anbar has been an ISIS stronghold. At one time, the terror group controlled an estimated 60% to 80% of the territory, but now it controls 90%. Only Abu Ghraib remains to be captured. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the order Monday morning to use Shia militias here.

Religious sects side by side

At midday the checkpoints are already manned by mixed forces. Sunnis and Shias are serving together. This was not planned, as the mostly Sunni province of Anbar doesn't like to harbor Shias. This is mainly because former Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki excluded Sunnis from many of the political processes and even manned the army with mostly Shia men. The yearlong peaceful protests were ignored, their demands deflected. In the end, the Sunni men joined ISIS in Anbar to fight the government in Baghdad. The battle for Anbar was declared to be a Sunni affair. But the situation has grown so grave that the prime minister has now deployed all available forces.

It appears that he is aware of the danger his decision brings. To avoid religious conflict breaking out again, Abadi had signs erected in Abu Ghraib and other places alerting residents to the presence of the Shia militias. "We serve all Iraqis," Sunni religious leaders declare.

Even the prime minister seems keen to avoid an escalation. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 there were many bloody confrontations in Baghdad between the religious groups, and it has been widely proclaimed to be a civil war. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, ISIS is attempting to reanimate this religious conflict by denouncing the Shias as infidels who should be killed.

Meanwhile in Anbar, Khadim, the brigadier general, has returned from an inspection of the front line section under his command. Germa is located five kilometers outside of Fallujah. Everything beyond that is ISIS land or "the Caliphate," as it is also called, reminiscent of the Sunni archetype of state. He says everything is quiet. His Al-Muthanna brigade is one of the five army units that have been stationed around Baghdad to guarantee its safety. But of all these units, Khadim's faces the most difficult task because it is charged with protecting Abu Ghraib as well as the international airport, which the terrorists desperately want to take. His predecessor died during one of the engagements.

All in all, however, ISIS is increasingly feeble, Khadim says. Propaganda is its mightiest weapon, which also accounts for the frequent desertions of Iraqi soldiers, even recently in Ramadi. The rumor had spread that 10,000 ISIS soldiers had crossed over from Syria. The approximately 1,000 Iraqi soldiers thought their mission futile and fled.

"ISIS hides in abandoned houses, circumnavigates large groups of people and throws explosive devices or places snipers on roof tops," Khadim says, describing its tactics. Khadim also mentions chlorine gas, which ISIS has used to kill some of his soldiers. This in turn heightens the fear.

The army's tactic is to play down the opponent's strength given that an estimated half of the army has deserted already. This is also evident in Khadim's troop strength. The brigade is made up of 3,462 soldiers of the regular army and 3,186 Shia volunteers who want to fight the Sunni terror group. Although the general stresses that Sunnis and Christians are also to be found among the troops, Shias represent the clear majority. On the way back to Baghdad, the military base Habbaniya comes into view. It is here that on Monday afternoon new recruits should have been sworn in, but the ceremony was another victim of the fighting in Ramadi.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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