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9 Key Figures in the Present Iraq Crisis Who You Should KnowNovember 14, 2014
Iraq is presently gripped by a political and military crisis. The notorious Islamic State (IS) group as you know has overrun large swaths of its north (including the major city of Mosul) along with most of the country’s western Anbar province.
As is the case with all major tumults, wars and historical events the present Iraq crisis has brought to the fore some important and interesting personalities. Many of whom we have seen before. Given the rapid pace of events its important to encapsulate who is who and who you should know in the present ongoing Iraqi crisis.
9) Nouri al-Maliki
While Maliki isn’t as instrumental in this crisis as he was some weeks ago due to his resignation from the post of Prime Minister he is still nonetheless a fundamentally important figure when it comes to understanding how Iraq has gotten to the point it is presently at. A Shiite Iraqi he was a dissident under the Saddam Hussein regime and during that time established links with the Iranians and the Syrians who were also opposed to that regime.
Maliki eventually ascended to power when the Iraqi Shiites were emancipated following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of the country and became Prime Minister in the wake of the sectarian violence which plagued Iraq from 2006 to 2008. During that period we had the Anbar Sunni Awakening when Sunni tribesmen from that province cooperated with the Iraqi government and American forces in order to quash the al-Qaeda forces carrying out terrorist attacks and sowing sectarian discord throughout the country.
Maliki however essentially used Iraq’s million-man security forces to further his own narrow sectarian ambitions while bringing about a semblance of stability in the wake of that violent period. Key Sunni tribesmen who were part of the Anbar Awakening weren’t able to join the army and Maliki used the central government to further what he perceived to be the interests of his own sect at the expense of the Arab and Kurdish Sunnis of Iraq. This saw to it that the Iraqi military and government was weak, divided and paralyzed in the wake of the Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq in June 2014 which saw the rapid fall of Iraq’s second city Mosul.
Maliki is no longer Prime Minister following his resignation in August of 2014 early on in his third term in office which began in April.
8) Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri
A peculiar figure indeed and certainly one who cannot be ignored. Al-Douri was Saddam Hussein’s sidekick throughout his brutal reign as well as his close friend. He avoided capture when the Americans and the British overthrew Saddam’s regime in 2003.
Since that time he has been underground and maintained extensive connections with a network of former Baath officials, the Iraqi Baath Party of course has been banned in the country following the 2003 invasion, who wish to undermine the authorities in Baghdad whatever way possible. Al-Douri is believed by his followers of a mysterious militant Sufi organization (the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order) to be their “hidden Sheikh”. He has used his connections in that Freemason-like organization to foment discord among the disenfranchised Sunni populations in late 2012.
This in turn saw to it that those areas that Islamic State later overran with such success were destabilized as the government attempted to crackdown on the increasingly larger demonstrations against the policies of the Maliki government.
7) Ali Hatem al-Suleiman
Suleiman in a lot of respects is the quintessential embodiment of this general Sunni disillusionment. A disillusionment which doesn’t necessarily translate into approval of what the Islamic State has been doing but at the same time an acknowledgement that that group successfully capitalized on widespread discontent which was already there.
Here is a prominent Sunni sheikh, the head of the 3 million-member Dulaim tribe in Anbar, who was initially opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and the predominantly Shia government which rose to power Baghdad as a result of it. Suleiman and his tribe were part of that Sunni Awakening in 2006 which saw Sunni tribesmen root out al-Qaeda from their territories. A decisive factor in the surge period of the Iraq War when it came to combating the al-Qaeda group there.
Now however while Suleiman doesn’t hold any affinity with the Islamic State and its actions he maintains they are only a small part in a general Sunni revolt against what they believe to be an unrepresentative and sectarian central government. He himself leads a militant group called the Anbar Tribes Revolutionary Council which aims to “defend” Anbar province from what he calls aggression from Baghdad.
6) Haider al-Abadi
It goes without saying that in a present crisis afflicting Iraq that the country’s Prime Minister constitutes an important figure worthy of mention. Abadi is a Shia who hails from the same political party which Maliki heads (the Islamic Dawa Party). He left Iraq early on in the Saddam Hussein regime and didn’t return until after that regimes overthrow in 2003.
In his time in exile in the United Kingdom he was director general of a firm in London where his specialty included horizontal and vertical transportation. He even has a patent relating to those fields. Given his activities and professions in exile its no surprise that in the first post-Saddam government in Baghdad he was the country’s Minister for Communication.
He became Prime Minister of Iraq last September following Maliki’s step-down from power following his failure to combat the Islamic State groups onslaught across the country.
5) Hadi Al-Amiri
This list intentionally only includes figures in the Iraq crisis who are themselves Iraqi. Hadi Al-Amiri, Iraq’s Transport Minister, hasn’t been overly important in the crisis Iraq is presently facing. Nevertheless he is a very apt example of those elements within the Iraqi government which have close ties to militias and the regime in neighbouring Iran.
He heads the Badr Organization, formerly the Badr Brigades militia. In the 1980’s he fought alongside the Iranians during the war between Iraq and Iran. Today he maintains close ties with the regime in Iran and calls the leader of the Iranian Quds Force (Qassem Suleimani) his “dearest friend.”
Amiri has been accused of supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria to the extent that he oversaw Iranian flights going through Iraqi airspace to ship weapons to that regime. These claims however have not been conclusively proven to be true.
4) Muqtada al-Sadr
A very important and influential Shia cleric in Iraq al-Sadr heads the Sadrist Movement, a political movement which also has a military wing known as the Mahdi Army which have fought against American forces during the Iraq War.
The young clerics more recent pronouncements following the American withdrawal in Iraq are noteworthy. When Sunnis began widespread demonstrations in late 2012 and throughout 2013 he supported them saying that their grievances with Maliki’s governance were genuine and legitimate.
While he officially withdrew from politics earlier this year the present crisis instigated by Islamic States’ onslaught has brought him back into the limelight. And he has used his stature to call on Shiites in Iraq to arm themselves and, among other things, defend their holy cities and holy sites against potential Islamic State terrorist attacks. After all the initial incident which sparked the sectarian violence which ravaged Iraq throughout the 2006-2008 civil war period was caused when Al-Qaeda managed to blow up the important Shiite al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.
3) Massoud Barzani
The Barzani family have been key players regarding modern Iraqi Kurdish history. It is therefore no surprise that Massoud Barzani played a key political role then in events in Iraq this year. Islamic State after all launched its major offensive against northern Iraq where the Kurdish region is situated. And while the Iraqi Army in that area immediately dissolved and fled south leaving behind a lot of its equipment the Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga forces proved instrumental in engaging Islamic State fighters. They even headed them off by sending forces into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a city of great cultural significance to the Kurds.
Barzani has had his problems with Maliki and seeing how little the Iraqi government could do to protect the Kurds introduced the idea of a referendum, a culmination of sorts resulting from Iraqi Kurdistan’s disgruntlement with the bullying of the Maliki government which proved to be useless in the face of the Islamic State. Kurdish independence would of course mean that Iraq would officially be partitioned.
2) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The leader of the Islamic State. The man who proclaimed himself caliph of swaths of territory his fighters seized from Iraq and Syria respectively.
Formerly a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq Baghdadi exploited both the ongoing war in neighbouring Syria and the widespread discontent amongst Iraq’s Sunnis in the early 2010’s to further his jihadi agenda. Taking hold of territory in northeastern Syria and exploiting the instability popular discontent in Iraq’s large western Anbar province brought about he was able to seize large chunks of territory to begin realizing his dream of establishing a caliphate.
His fighters even went as far as to proclaim they had dismantled the international border which separates the modern polities of Iraq and Syria. In July 2014 he infamously proclaimed from a mosque in Iraq’s second city of Mosul that he and his cronies dreams of a caliphate were being actualized.
As of writing he is rumoured to be either wounded or dead in an American air strike. But his fighters continue to kill their enemies wherever they can, from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border to the periphery of Baghdad in central Iraq.
1) Ayatollah Ali Sistani
Born in Mashhad, Iran the Ayatollah Sistani is by far the most important and prominent Shia cleric in Iraq today. He has in the past being conspicuous for his non-intervention in Iraq’s political affairs. However the crisis in Iraq was so dire over the summer in light of IS’s rapid advances that Sistani did use his stature among many Iraqis to call for political reform in Baghdad. He also called on those who heed his word as a religious authority not to join the many sectarian Shia militias but instead the mainstream Iraqi military so as not to aggravate sectarian tensions.
He has in the past called upon Iraq Shias not to launch reprisal attacks on Sunnis when their communities were attacked, and when the aforementioned al-Askari shrine was blown up, urging them to remember that it was Salafi minded extremist who had attacked them and not their Iraqi Sunni neighbours.
In other words instead of using more sectarianism in the form of riling up Shia vengeance Sistani is, and has consistently, called for cool-headed composure in the wake of that sectarian onslaught clearly seeing that Islamic State seek to exploit the sectarian fissures which still, sadly, exist in Iraqi society.
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